If you’ve ever heard a seal pup barking, you know the telltale sound of croup.
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Croup is a respiratory infection that affects children mainly during the fall and winter months. It affects children younger than age five. Symptoms are most severe in children younger than age three. Croup may last from five to six days, depending on the severity of the infection. Croup can lead to other complications too, such as ear infection, respiratory distress or pneumonia.
Croup is most commonly caused by viruses such as parainfluenza and adenovirus, but occasionally it’s caused by bacteria. This infection causes the upper airways to swell, making it difficult to breathe.
“It usually starts off as mild cold symptoms. Then children will develop a hoarse voice similar to laryngitis,” says pediatrician Kimberly Giuliano, MD.
Not your typical cough
In the more serious cases of croup, children can develop a harsh, raspy, vibrating wheeze when they inhale, which is called stridor.
They might also have a signature seal-like bark that is very high-pitched and can be scary for the parent as well as the child.
“The average cough with a cold is either very dry and throaty, or sometimes, it’s a deeper cough that sounds wet and mucus-like,” says Dr. Giuliano. “The cough that comes with croup is very different from any other cough parents have heard before.”
If your child has wheezing, labored breathing or stridor, an abnormal, high-pitched, musical breathing sound, Dr. Giuliano recommends trying a couple of things at home.
Take your child into the bathroom, shut the door and turn the shower on high using hot water to get the room nice and steamy.
“Breathing in moist air can help a child who is having breathing difficulties,” Dr. Giuliano says.
Another trick that may ease croup breathing problems is to take your child outside into the cold air or put the child’s face in front of an open freezer.
These home remedies should provide relief within minutes. If they don’t help, Dr. Giuliano advises taking your child to the emergency department.
“It’s the child who’s having increasing breathing difficulties who is at risk for complications,” says Dr. Giuliano. “Those are the children who need to be evaluated urgently.”
Most croup will go away by itself, but parents should steer clear of treating croup with over-the-counter cough or cold medicines.
“They cause significant side effects,” says Dr. Giuliano. “In addition, research has shown that for croup and other kinds of coughs and colds, they’re really not any more effective than giving your child a placebo.”