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Croup in Babies: Signs, Symptoms and Treatments

Most common during autumn and winter, croup is a condition characterised by a barking cough and typically affects young children and babies.

croup in babies: symptoms and treatments

Although usually mild and easily treated at home, it’s worth knowing the main symptom's of croup in babies, as well as what to do to help prevent and cure it. When it comes to your little one’s health, there is no such thing as being overly prepared.

Contents:

  • 1) What is Croup?
  • 2) Who is Affected by Croup?
  • 3) What Causes Croup?
  • 4) What Are The Symptoms of Croup?
  • 5) What Does Croup Sound Like?
  • 6) Is Croup Contagious?
  • 7) How Long Does Croup Last?
  • 8) Can I Treat Croup At Home?
  • 9) Which Remedies Are Available from Our GP?
  • 10) When Should I Worry About Croup?
  • 11) How Can I Prevent Croup?

  • What is Croup?

    Croup is a respiratory problem which affects the upper airways, namely the trachea (windpipe), bronchi (main passageways into the lungs) and larynx (voice box).

    The main symptoms are a distinctive harsh cough and stridor – a rasping sound when breathing in.


    Who is Affected by Croup?

    Croup mostly affects children aged between six months and three years old. It can sometimes develop in babies as young as three months old. Boys tend to become ill with croup more often than girls.[1] Adults are not likely to get croup.


    What Causes Croup?

    Croup in babies is typically caused by a viral infection in the upper airways, with the parainfluenza virus being its most common origin. Other less common causes may include an allergic reaction or even the inhalation of a small object.[2]


    What Are The Symptoms of Croup?

    Many of croup’s symptoms are similar to those of a cold. In fact, croup can often begin with a cold. According to Mayo Clinic's report, your little can develop:

  • a barking cough
  • a fever
  • a hoarse voice
  • noisy breathing

  • Depending on the severity of the symptoms, your baby may need professional medical attention.


    What Does Croup Sound Like?

    Croup’s cough is very particular and distinctive in its sound. It’s a harsh cough that sounds like a dog or a seal barking – it may be useful to listen to some examples online and compare them to your baby’s cough.

    Croup’s cough is usually accompanied by a hoarse voice as well as a rasping sound when breathing in, which is called ‘stridor’. These symptoms occur due to inflammation and swelling in the larynx.[3]


    Is Croup Contagious?

    With a virus usually at its source, croup is a contagious condition, which means it’s likely to spread from person to person. In particular, croup can be spread through coughing and sneezing, and even contact with surfaces infected by respiratory secretions such as mucus.

    If your little one has croup, it’s best to stay at home during the infectious period*, which lasts at least three days and should be prolonged until fever, where occurring, subsides.[4]


    How Long Does Croup Last?

    A mild condition, croup in babies doesn’t tend to last for very long – in fact, you can expect it to clear up in a few days.[1] There are some cases where croup can last up to two weeks, however.


    Can I Treat Croup At Home?

    Mild cases of croup can usually be treated at home, and there are a few things you can do – and a few things you should avoid doing – to help your little one. If you’re unsure on what do to, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your GP.

    The NHS recommends that you take the following actions[3] when your baby has croup:

    DO:

  • Give your baby ibuprofen or paracetamol in liquid form, making sure to carefully follow the instructions on the bottle, to help lower a fever and/or soothe a sore throat
  • Encourage your little one to drink cool fluids regularly and in small doses to prevent dehydration
  • When children suffer from croup, it’s important that they don’t get distressed as this can worsen the symptoms. Make sure to offer them reassurance and check on them regularly. You can also help them by comfortably sitting them upright on your lap if they’re breathing noisily and with difficulty.

    If you’re unsure on what medicines your little one can and can’t take, speak to your pharmacist.

    DO NOT:

    The NHS highlights three main actions which must be avoided when your little one has croup:[3][5]

  • Insert objects in your baby’s mouth in an attempt to check the throat; this may cause croup symptoms to worsen
  • Give your baby any cold or cough medicines; these are intended to dry mucus, which leads to making the airways even smaller
  • Put your little one in a steamy room to inhale steam
  • Remember these are the things to avoid.


    Which Remedies Are Available from Our GP?

    Besides suitable painkillers, your baby’s GP will typically prescribe a single dose of dexamethasone or prednisolone, both of which are oral corticosteroid medications which help to reduce swelling/inflammation in the airways.[6]

    Where symptoms are severe and/or persistent, hospital treatment may be required.

    croup remedies and treatment

    When Should I Worry About Croup?

    Fortunately, most cases of croup in babies are mild and can be easily treated at home. You may need to seek medical advice, if your little one is showing no signs of improvement or not responding to medication.

    Always call 999 if your child is experiencing breathing difficulties or drive to the nearest hospital’s A&E.

    The NHS[7] recommends that you look out for the following symptoms of croup too, which require urgent medical attention:

  • Very high temperature (above 39°C)
  • Worsening cough
  • Stridor when resting
  • Agitation and distress
  • Unusual sleepiness and drowsiness
  • Extreme difficulty or inability swallowing saliva and other fluids
  • Skin around ribs and chest appears to be pulled in and tight, making the chest bones and ribs more visible
  • A rapid heartbeat or a falling heart rate
  • Blue-ish, pale or dark skin
  • Blue-ish lips or fingernails
  • Increased breathing rate (too breathless to eat or talk) or 'silent chest' (you're unable to hear sounds of your child’s breathing)
  • It’s best to keep an even closer watch on babies that were born prematurely or suffer from a respiratory condition such as asthma.

    We know that seeing your child poorly isn’t easy. Try and remain calm and trust your instincts; do keep in mind that it is rare for complications to develop as a consequence of croup in babies[8] and most importantly that it is extremely rare to die of this illness.

    If something doesn’t feel quite right, you can ring 111 at any time of the day to get immediate specialist advice and help. Check out our guide on who to call when your baby is ill for further direction.


    How Can I Prevent Croup?

    Similarly to a common cold or flu, croup itself cannot be prevented. Nevertheless, there are a few simple steps you can take to help ensure your little one stays healthy, including:[9]

  • Good personal hygiene (e.g. washing hands regularly)
  • Clean living environment (e.g. cleaning surfaces regularly to keep them germ-free)

  • In general, it’s also advisable for your baby to avoid anyone who is suffering from a respiratory illness. In addition, staying ahead of routine vaccinations is equally important as some of these (e.g. the MMR vaccine) can protect your child from croup-causing infections.

    If you think your baby suffers from a different condition – or simply want to be better informed – take a look at our complete guides on medical conditions.


    Read More:

  • Hayfever in Babies, Toddlers and Children
  • Whooping Cough: What to Look Out For
  • Advice for Asthma Attacks


  • *Please note the definition of incubation and infectious period are different. The incubation period refers to the time between catching an infection and actually showing any symptoms, while the infectious period refers to the time when a person is infectious. A person can be infectious before any symptoms are shown.[10]


    Approved by: Elizabeth Day - Mothercare's in-house parenting consultant for 15 years. Experience; NHS maternity nurse, children's centre support worker, degree in clinical and biopsychology from Birkbeck, University of London, degree in child development from the University of Nottingham.


    Last reviewed: August 2019


    References:

    [1]. Croup, NHS Inform, July 2019

    [2]. Causes of Croup, NHS Inform, July 2019

    [3]. Croup - Information for Parents, Southampton Children's Hospital, March 2015

    [4]. Croup in Infants, UpToDate, April 2019

    [5]. Croup, NHS, July 2019

    [6]. Treating Coup, NHS Inform, July 2019

    [7]. Symptoms of Croup, NHS Inform, July 2019

    [8]. Complications of Croup, NHS Inform, July 2019

    [9]. Croup: Symptoms and Causes, MayoClinic, April 2019

    [10]. Croup Incubation Period, NHS, November 2019