Seven Things All Parents Should Know About Croup

child with humidifier
photo by Aqua Mechanical

Croup can leave a child feeling miserable and parents in a panic. The condition is caused by inflammation and swelling of the airway below the vocal cords. This swelling leads to a variety of symptoms, most notably a harsh, “barking” cough. Many cases of croup can be treated at home. But the condition can become serious so it’s important to know when to seek medical care. Here’s what every parent should know about croup and where you can get urgent care for croup in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. 

1. Croup occurs most often in babies and toddlers.

Most cases of croup develop in babies and children between the ages of 3 months and five years old. The most common age to experience croup is two years old. This is because younger children have small airways, so even a small amount of swelling can affect airflow and breathing. This leads to symptoms of croup.

2. Croup is usually caused by a virus and often starts out as a cold.

The majority of croup cases are caused by a viral infection. For this reason, croup is more common in the fall and winter months when cold and flu viruses tend to spread. Some of the most common viruses that cause croup are parainfluenza (a group of viruses that are not the flu but that cause flu-like symptoms), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza (the flu), and adenovirus or enterovirus (common viruses that can cause colds, bronchitis, pneumonia and other conditions).

3. There are other causes of croup besides infection. When this occurs, it is called “spasmodic croup.”

A viral infection is the most common cause of croup but it’s not the only one. Allergies – to food or something in the environment – may also cause croup symptoms. Reflux (when stomach acid and food move back up into the esophagus) can cause it as well. This is because both of these conditions can cause the narrowing of the airways that leads to croup symptoms. In these cases, the condition is referred to as “spasmodic croup.”

4. The characteristic “barking cough” is just one of several croup symptoms to look for.

The classic symptom of croup is a cough that can sound like the high-pitched bark of a seal. Other symptoms may include a fever, hoarse voice, wheezing, and a high-pitched whistling noise when breathing in (this is called “stridor”). Symptoms are usually worse at night and can also be aggravated by crying or frequent coughing. Most cases of croup last for about three to five days.

5. For most croup symptoms, home remedies may be enough.

If your child is experiencing the symptoms of croup described above, there are things you can do at home to ease symptoms until the virus has run its course.

  • Give children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever.
  • Add moisture to the air your child is breathing by using a humidifier or sitting in the bathroom with the door closed while the shower is running.
  • Cool air can also help to open up the airways a bit; try taking your child outside in the colder months for a few minutes to breathe the cold air.
  • Make sure your child is getting plenty of fluids by offering plenty of breast milk or formula for babies, and water for older children.
  • Try to keep your child calm, comfortable and well-rested in order to avoid excessive crying, as this can make symptoms worse.
  • Keeping your child’s head elevated may help to make breathing easier as well.

One thing that will not be helpful in treating croup at home is over-the-counter cold and cough medicines. These will not help to lessen the symptoms of croup and they aren’t recommended for children under the age of six according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

6. If any of these croup symptoms develop, you should seek medical care.

While the measures listed above will be enough to treat most cases of croup, it’s important to remember that croup is a condition that can worsen quickly and become serious. Be sure to keep a close eye on your child so that you can act quickly if symptoms do become worse; you may even want to sleep near your child since night time is when symptoms are usually worst.
If you notice any of the following more serious symptoms of croup, you should call your doctor or seek medical care at an urgent care center right away. You can find a PhysicianOne Urgent Care Center here.

  • Extreme difficulty breathing; if the skin around your child’s ribs pulls in tight when he or she is breathing in, this is a sign that breathing has become too difficult.
  • Stridor (high-pitched whistling noise when breathing in) even when your child is at rest; stridor that occurs while the child is crying, coughing or active is not as much of a concern.
  • Excessive sleepiness, sluggishness or listlessness

Finally, if your child has excessive drooling or difficulty swallowing or starts to turn blue around the mouth, nose or fingernails, this is a medical emergency – call 911 immediately.

7. Most cases of croup are contagious.

Since viruses cause the majority of croup cases, it is possible for one child with croup to spread that virus to another child who will then also develop croup. Frequent hand washing and reminding your child to cover his or cough or sneeze with the inside of the elbow can help to limit the spread of germs.
It’s also important to keep up on your child’s vaccinations. Be sure to visit the pediatrician for your child’s annual physical to receive these vaccinations. PhysicianOne Urgent Care can also provide flu vaccinations to children ages three and older in Massachusetts and New York and to children five years and older in Connecticut.


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