Is it just a Cough or is it Croup?

24 August 2021
Posted by: Chelsea

In this article, we’ll be discussing croup and how to differentiate between it and a common cough.

Is it just a cough or is it croup?

A cough can arise for any one of literally dozens of reasons. It might be a little chest infection, a tickly throat and so on.

By contrast, croup is caused by one of a family of viruses and it specifically affects and inflames the vocal cords and windpipe.

At the outset, it’s important to understand that there may be no easy way for you to distinguish between a mild case of croup and a routine common cold. Both may give rise to throaty coughs and some of the better known and more distinguishing symptoms of croup may be entirely absent in some very mild cases.

Croup – the typical symptoms

More commonly, mild to moderate croup is identified by:

  • a barking and sometimes higher-pitched cough that seems to have its origins in the throat rather than chest areas;
  • the voice sounding hoarse, croaky and strained;
  • a typically mild fever;
  • a rash;
  • other typical ‘cold’ symptoms like a runny nose and sore throat plus sneezing;
  • high-pitched whistling and wheezing from the mouth or throat when breathing – notably at night.

This form of croup normally affects the under-6s and becomes less common as children get older. It is more common in boys than girls and is most frequently seen in autumn and winter.

It typically lasts 3-5 days and many children seem to find it no worse than a mild cold. In many such cases, significant medication and intervention may not be required though only a GP can make that call.

Top tip – never make your own diagnoses based upon internet articles. ALWAYS consult a GP or other medical professional.

Croup – more severe symptoms

In some instances, the symptoms of croup can be more severe and require medical attention. They include:

  • difficulties in breathing. The warning signs of this may be flared nostrils when breathing, visible extra muscular effort to breathe, signs of skin being tightened in around the rib cage or base of the neck;
  • cyanosis (blue skin – typically first seen around fingers and toenails, ear lobes, tip of the ear, tongue and inside of the cheek);
  • extreme restlessness and agitation – usually caused by breathing difficulties. Note that keeping your child (and yourself) calm is imperative because agitation can make the condition worse;
  • higher fevers;
  • possibly difficulties (or lack of interest in) eating and drinking.

Moderate to severe croup usually requires medical intervention and in some cases, the condition may become life-threatening if untreated.

Croup and treatments

For a mild to moderate case, home treatment is usually sufficient – though the severity of the case should be confirmed by a medical professional rather than home guesswork.At the time of diagnosis, your GP may decide to give some in-surgery injections or inhaler/mist treatments before sending you home.

At home, you may be advised to use a humidifier and perhaps some child-friendly paracetamol to help reduce fevers etc. It’s advisable for a parent to sleep in the same room as the child, just in case the position deteriorates overnight. Keep the room well ventilated.

Do not, under any circumstances, allow your child to be in a room where active smokers are also present. Their smoke may significantly increase respiratory symptoms.

Where the case is diagnosed as moderate to severe, hospitalisation may be required. If you see any signs of breathing difficulties, you should get your child to medical attention quickly – call an ambulance and do not delay!

Once in hospital, medication and treatment will vary depending upon many factors.

One common treatment is the use of glucocorticoids to help reduce inflammation. X-rays may also be taken and various forms of inhalers, nebulisers and oxygen may be used. Some medications may be administered by IV methods.

Less than 1% of children admitted to hospital for severe croup treatments require intubation to help breathing.

Can croup be prevented?

No – but the chances of your child catching it can be reduced.

This is through good hygiene practices of the type we have all become familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, do not send your child to school or a day care centre if you suspect they are unwell – even if only slightly at the time.

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