Common Croup Symptoms

Learn the Difference Between a Regular Cough and a Croup Cough

Woman hugging sick daughter
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What is Croup?

Croup (also known as acute laryngotracheobronchitis) is a very common viral infection in children. Various viruses can cause it, so it's possible for a child to get it more than once. 

Like some other childhood viral infections—such as roseola, which causes a fever followed by a rash, or fifth disease, with its slapped cheeks appearance—croup has distinctive symptoms, so it's generally easy to recognize.

There is no formal test for diagnosing croup. A pediatrician tends to diagnose it based on the presence of certain telltale symptoms. 

Croup Symptoms

Children with croup are usually about six months to six years old, have a few days of a low-grade fever, cough, and runny nose and then suddenly—typically in the middle of the night—develop:

  • the characteristic croupy or barky cough that sounds like a barking seal
  • a hoarse voice
  • difficulty breathing and inspiratory stridor (a snoring type of noise that kids with croup can make when they breathe in), which can often be confused with wheezing
  • continued fever, which can be low-grade or up to 102 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, although some kids with croup don't have any fever at all

Another characteristic is that the symptoms are worse at night and when your child gets agitated, and then are better during the day and when he or she calms down. Symptoms can also get better when your child is exposed to cool air, which explains why many children get better on the way to the emergency room.

The Croupy Cough

Although the cough of croup is generally described as sounding like a barking seal, how many people actually know what a seal bark sounds like? One way to get an idea is to search for "croup cough" on YouTube.com and watch short, amateur videos that parents have taken of children who have croup.

Since there is an audio component to the videos, it's a free and quick way to get a sense of what the cough sounds like in real life. 

Most importantly, you simply need to understand that a croupy cough sounds much different than any other cough that your child will have from a cold, asthma, or bronchitis.

Severe Croup Symptoms

Although most cases of croup are mild and go away when treated with home remedies, some children have more severe symptoms and need immediate medical attention.

These more severe symptoms can include:

  • difficulty breathing or stridor when your child is sleeping, calm, or not agitated
  • having croup and being very fussy
  • drooling and having trouble swallowing
  • being very pale or having a bluish discoloration of his fingernails or around his mouth
  • being lethargic

What You Need to Know

If you suspect that your child may have croup symptoms—especially if you think that your child may have severe croup symptoms—call your kid's pediatrician right away. That way, you can make sure that it's croup, and figure out the best way to treat the condition so your little one can feel better fast.

 

Also, see the About.com guide to croup for information on common treatments for croup, which tend to include a steamy bathroom, a cool mist humidifier, and steroids.

Sources:

Behrman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 17th ed.

Viral croup. Knutson D - Am Fam Physician - 1-FEB-2004; 69(3): 535-40

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