Cough in children

A cough can sound awful, but it is rarely a sign of serious illness. Coughing is an important reflex which helps to clear mucous from the airways. It is a common symptom in children, especially when they are under 5 years of age.

Many children get a cough when they have a cold and will continue coughing for three weeks or more. The cough will normally get better on its own, given rest and time. 

See your doctor straight away if your child has a cough and:

  • is working hard with their breathing or is breathing fast
  • has a temperature higher than 38.5 degrees Celsius
  • has difficulty speaking normally or being unable to finish a whole sentence because of their coughing or breathing
  • you can hear wheezing or whistling in their chest.

You should also see your doctor if your child has a persistent daily cough which has lasted more than four weeks. If you are worried about your child's cough and unsure what to do, call Healthline on 0800 611 116. 

Different types of cough

A cough is often described as being wet or dry.

A wet cough:

A dry cough:

  • sounds chesty and phlegmy.
  • is also known as a productive cough.
  • is less likely to produce phlegm (mucus)
  • can sound irritated, harsh, barking, or whooping
  • is also known as a non-productive cough

Causes of cough in children

Some of the common or serious causes of cough in children include: 

  • Colds or chest infections
    • Young children can have between 6 to 12 of these a year. If they are at daycare, this can be more.
    • A wet, chesty cough may be due to a chest infection. If it lasts more than two weeks you need to see a doctor as this may be due to underlying chest problems and your child should see a doctor.
    • Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection in children under 6 months of age. 
    • Read more about bronchiolitis
  • Asthma
    • An asthma-related cough is usually dry and occurs at night, with sport or in the early morning.
    • There will usually be other symptoms such as wheeze, allergy (eczema or hayfever), or a history of asthma and allergy in the family. 
    • Read more about asthma in children
  • Bronchiectasis
    • If a child has a chronic cough, one that lasts more than four weeks, they should see a doctor. One of the serious conditions to be considered is bronchiectasis and the longer a wet persistent cough is left, the more risk of scarring and permanent damage to the lungs. 
    • Read more about bronchiectasis
  • Smoke exposure
    • Second-hand cigarette smoke is another common cause of cough in children even when they are well.
    • Make sure your child’s environment is smoke-free. Ask all visitors and whanau to smoke outside and keep your car smoke-free too. 
    • Support family and friends to quit smoking. Call Quitline on 0800 778 778.
    • See also: Be smokefree for your kids
  • Whooping cough
    • This can start like a cold or flu, but the cough persists and gets worse with coughing spasms which can last weeks. 
      Read more about whooping cough
  • Croup
    • This can also start like a cold or flu and after a day or two can lead to a barking cough and raspy breathing.
    • Read more about croup

Looking after a child with a cough

  • Encourage rest and give lots to drink.
  • Honey can act to soothe the throat and is suitable for children over the age of one year.
  • Vapour rubs can be applied to the chest and back. However, there is little scientific evidence as to how well they work.
    • Avoid putting the rub near the nostril area.
    • Not recommended in children aged less than three months.
  • Simple pain relievers such as paracetamol (commonly known as 'Pamol or Panadol') can be used for the treatment of pain or fever.

See your doctor if your child has a sore throat, is not breathing easily, has a cough that has lasted longer than 4 weeks, or you are in any other way concerned they are not getting better. 

Can cough medication be used for children?

Cough and cold medicines are designed to help reduce the symptoms of the common cold such as runny nose and cough – they do not cure the infection. 

The ingredients in these medications can cause serious side effects in young children. To avoid harm:

  • over-the-counter cough and cold preparations are not recommended for children under 6 years of age
  • only those labelled as safe for children should be given to children 6 years of age and older.

For more information see: Cough and cold medicines – advice for parents  

Learn more

Cough Ministry of Health (NZ)
Cough Kids Health (NZ)
Coughing Kids Health (USA)
First aid: coughing Kids Health (USA)

Credits: Health Navigator team.