A common childhood illness, croup often starts with mild cold-like symptoms. As the airway swells, the child develops noisy breathing and a cough that sounds like the barking of a seal. Often a child’s symptoms get worse or come on suddenly at night and they can be scary. The symptoms tend to repeat over the next two to three nights, which can be exhausting for everyone.
Croup is an illness that affects the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea). Children between 3 months and 3 years of age are most likely to get croup. Their airways are small, and any swelling can make it difficult to breathe. The good news is that most cases of croup, though they need to be monitored closely, are mild and last less than a week.
Croup is caused by viruses that are contagious. The viruses can spread through the air or by touching a contaminated surface, something toddlers do all day long. Less frequently, allergies may cause croup. Your baby can get croup at any time of year, but it is most common between October and March, so it’s time to keep your eyes and ears open for it.
If your little one gets sick, do not give over-the-counter cough and cold products to her if she is younger than 2 years of age. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these medications can have serious and even life-threating side effects.
Steam often helps children with mild cases of croup to breathe easier. I remember those nights when I steamed up the bathroom with hot shower water and sat there with my son or daughter for 15 to 20 minutes. It did seem to help, but if this doesn’t help you, try taking your child outside to breathe cool night air. The cool air helps reduce airway swelling. A cool-water humidifier (vaporizer) in your baby’s room also may help. While your baby has the croup, check on her frequently during the night to make sure the symptoms don’t get worse.
Antibiotics won’t help croup, but call your baby’s health care provider right away if your child develops a barking cough or noisy breathing. Providers sometimes prescribe medications called corticosteroids that reduce swelling in the airways and make breathing easier. Rarely, a child with serious breathing problems may need to be treated with oxygen and medications in the hospital.
Call for emergency medical assistance if your baby:
• Appears to be struggling to get a breath
• Looks blue around the mouth
• Drools and has a lot of trouble swallowing
• Makes louder and louder noises as she inhales (called stridor), especially when resting.