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Cough is a very common problem for children. The most common cause of cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold. Young children usually have six to 12 respiratory tract infections per year, usually caused by viruses.
Antibiotics don't help with coughs caused by viruses. Sometimes, children may cough for many weeks after a viral infection – this is called a post-viral cough and, again, antibiotics are usually no help.
Occasionally a cough may be caused by a bacterial infection in the throat or chest. In these cases, antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor to treat a bacterial infection.
If your child is otherwise well, it is unlikely that there will be a serious cause for the cough.
If your child seems unwell and you are concerned, it is a good idea to take them to your GP. The doctor will check your child for other causes of cough.
If your child has a high fever, difficulty breathing, is not drinking very much or has fewer wet nappies than usual, take them to see the GP.
Some post-viral coughs may be present for many weeks after your child has recovered from the respiratory tract infection, for example, after bronchiolitis. This is normal. If the cough lasts for many weeks and you are worried, your GP may refer you to a paediatrician (specialist children's doctor).
A child who has a persistent cough at night might have asthma. Usually, children with asthma will have other symptoms as well, such as wheeze and difficulty breathing. Many children with asthma also suffer from allergies and eczema. If you are concerned that your child may have asthma, see your GP for an examination and more information.
My child’s cough is keeping them awake at night. What can I do?
If they are over 12 months, consider giving them some honey to soothe the irritation in their throat. If your child coughs mainly at night and less during the day, this may represent asthma and should be investigated by your GP.
Is it OK to send my child to school if they have a cough?
If your child is unwell with a fever, runny nose and cough it is best to keep them home and reduce the chance of spreading their infection to others. However, a cough can last for many weeks after your child has recovered from their infection, and there is no need to keep them home from school for that long. A cough may also represent something else, like asthma, which does not require school exclusion.
There are a lot of different cough medicines in the pharmacy. Do they work?
Some cough medicines work by thinning the mucus produced in the airway. Others reduce your natural cough reflex or may contain similar ingredients to anti-histamines. However, there is no scientific evidence that cough medicines will be helpful, and some may have unwanted side effects, like constipation. Cough medicines should not be used in children younger than six years old, and only used in children over six on the advice of a health professional.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Emergency and General Medicine departments. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed March 2018.
Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.