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Your little one’s persistent coughing is keeping the entire family up at night, they're exhausted and sore from all the exertion on their stomach and chest. Your first instinct may be to reach for cough or flu syrup to offer quick relief, however doctors warn against them as they’re not considered safe for young children.

Treat your child’s throat tickle the right way with these helpful tips from Dr Marlin McKay, general practitioner at Goldman Medical Centre.

What is a cough?

A cough is an important reflex defense mechanism, said McKay. "It is responsible for clearing out our airways, and thus prevents us from inhaling things that could harm our airways and lungs."

It is normal for children to cough once in awhile. "In fact, even healthy children may present with coughs and colds at least 7 to 10 times a year. But occasionally, a cough may be a symptom of more serious underlying illness or condition," he said.

Coughs are called "dry" if they do not produce any mucus, and "wet" if they do. "The wet coughs may also cause vomiting, sleep disturbance and much anxiety to parents. In instances of wet coughs, the mucus needs to be thinned to allow excess mucus to be removed from the body."

What causes a cough?

The most common causes of a cough in children are:

  • Infections of the airways or lungs (mostly viral, including the common cold)

  • Having an object stuck in an airway

  • Asthma

  • Chronic lung conditions (e.g. congenital)

  • Overproduction of mucus

What can I do before taking my child to a doctor?

  • Keep your child hydrated by drinking lots of fluids

  • Use a humidifier in his or her bedroom.

  • Sit in the bathroom with him or her while you run hot water in the shower to make steam.

If your child is over the age of two and has a wet cough, they may benefit from mucolytics, which work by making mucus inside the lungs less sticky and easier to cough. This deals with the route of the problem i.e. the mucus.

Don’t:

  • Give cough and cold medicines to children, especially if they are younger than 6 years old. Cough and cold medicines are unlikely to help, and may have adverse effects. Cough syrups may also contain a combination of different active ingredients that are potentially harmful to children

  • Give aspirin to children younger than 18 years old, as this can cause a life-threatening condition called Reye syndrome.

  • Give antibiotics as most coughs and colds are caused by viruses.

When should I take my child to a Doctor?

  • If they are younger than four months old

  • Difficulty in breathing, noisy breathing or rapid breathing

  • Coughing up blood

  • Loss of appetite

  • Dehydration

  • Fever that persists or does not respond to anti-fever medication

  • Persistent cough longer than two weeks