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Croup cough: symptoms, treatment, and home remedies

Children running happy in sunny field
Croup is a common respiratory infection accompanied by a distinctive barking cough. While usually not serious, these home remedies can help ease symptoms.
With symptoms more common at night, croup can be stressful and worrying for you and your child. Presenting with symptoms like a hoarse voice, barking cough and a whistling noise when taking a breath, croup is a common illness among babies and young children that can be concerning even when symptoms are mild.

Here, you’ll learn all about croup including its causes and symptoms, when to consult your GP, how to prevent croup and croup treatment you can do at home.

What is croup?

Croup is a common viral infection affecting the airways, like your throat and windpipe, making breathing difficult.1

Usually, croup affects mainly young children and babies, but sometimes older children (between 5 and 8 years old) can develop croup too. Younger children and babies are often more affected by croup as their airways are smaller, and even a small amount of swelling can make it really hard for them to breathe.2

Croup is often a mild infection, that usually clears up after 5 or 6 days.2 But, if you have any concerns about your child’s symptoms or they don’t stop after a few days, it is always important to speak to your GP for help and advice.

What are the symptoms of croup?

The symptoms of croup include: 
  • A hoarse voice 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • A high-pitched whistle whilst breathing (also known as ‘stridor’) 
  • A barking cough (also known as ‘croup cough’) 
Croup can present itself like a common cold first, so you might notice cold-like symptoms like a temperature, a cough, and a runny nose.4 The other symptoms of croup usually happen after a few days and some, like croup cough, will likely be worse at night.4
At-home croup treatment
Croup treatment generally varies depending on how severe the symptoms are, but most cases are mild, and the symptoms can be managed at home easily. It is best to see your GP for advice on your child’s symptoms before carrying out croup treatment at home.

If your child’s croup symptoms are mild, there are a few things you can do that can help. This includes: 
  1. Staying upright
    Having your child sit in an upright position, whether that is on your lap or in a chair, can help make breathing easier than if they’re lying down. 
  2. Drinking plenty of fluids
    Staying hydrated by drinking water, eating soup, or even having a frozen fruit ice lolly can help. For babies who are too young to have water, formula or breast milk is best.5 
  3. Keeping them calm
    Comforting your child when they’re upset or stressed is important as crying can make the symptoms of croup worse. 
  4. Taking paracetamol
    Giving your child paracetamol is often recommended to help ease any pain and a high temperature. However, it is best to check with your GP that paracetamol is suitable for your child.
  5. Checking on your child regularly
    Keeping a close eye on your child and monitoring their symptoms, even at night, is important.1
The NHS recommends that steam and humid air should be avoided for children with a croup cough. Some people claim this is a good form of croup cough treatment, but there is no solid evidence that your child breathing in humid air from a hot bath or shower in a closed room will help.6,7, Steam treatment also heightens the risk of accidental scalding.

If your child’s symptoms get worse, or linger on for longer than around 8 days, it is important to seek help from a medical professional. In more severe cases of croup, your child might need further medical attention and it is important to seek help immediately.7,8

Treatment for croup in adults has no formal recommendations but in some of the rare, recorded cases, individuals were prescribed a steroid to lessen the swelling of their airways.

How to prevent croup

There are many viruses that can cause croup and it is not always possible to stop your child from getting it. However, practising good hygiene like washing your hands, staying home if unwell and coughing or sneezing into your elbow or tissue can help stop illnesses like croup from spreading.9

Several of your child’s routine vaccinations are thought to help protect your child against some of the infections and viruses that can cause croup. These vaccinations include MMR and DTaP/IPV/Hib.11

Is croup contagious?

Yes, croup is contagious and can spread really easily among children. Like many airborne viruses, croup is most likely spread by breathing in droplets from coughs and sneezes.4

The parainfluenza virus is thought to be the most common virus that causes croup, and this can be picked up through close contact with infected people and contact with contaminated surfaces.10

Why does croup cause coughing?

Croup causes inflammation and swelling in the tissues around the voice box and trachea, which can be really irritating and sore.5

The inflammation and irritation can cause a harsh, ‘barking’ cough, which some say sounds like a seal’s bark.5 This cough is the body’s natural reflex to help protect the lungs and airways, but as the airways are narrow, a croup cough can sound harsher than normal.11

Croup cough is often accompanied by loud breathing and sometimes an unusual high-pitched whistle called stridor when taking a breath.5

Why are children more susceptible to croup?

It can sometimes feel like your child is ill all the time, especially when they go back to school or nursery! In fact, it’s thought that the average child can have up to 8 colds or respiratory infections a year!

Children are actually much more susceptible to infections like croup because they have a less developed immune system to fight off infections that they might come into contact with.

At school or nursery, they’ll have more exposure to many common illnesses from their environment and the other children around them.15 These illnesses can spread really quickly among children as most don’t know the importance of washing their hands frequently or covering their mouth or nose when coughing and sneezing.5

If your child is ill, it is best to inform the school that they are unwell and keep them at home until they feel better to prevent the illness from spreading.

Can adults get croup?

Croup mainly affects babies and young children, and croup in adults is very rare.

Generally, the virus that causes croup may cause just a sore throat or a cough in older children or adults as their airways are larger and more developed. It is rare for this virus to cause the same difficulties in breathing in adults that it presents in young children, but there are a few recorded cases of this happening.8

The final say

Croup, a common infection, can be uncomfortable and irritating for your child and difficult for parents and caregivers to manage.

Croup is most common among children, and it can spread very easily from child to child, especially at school or nursery. In very rare cases has croup been diagnosed in adults, instead it usually presents itself as a sore throat or a cough.

Whilst there are some home remedies for croup that can help symptoms, it is vital to seek medical advice if you are concerned about your child’s symptoms, if their symptoms last longer than a few days with no sign of improvement or if their symptoms get worse.
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