What is Croup?

Wintertime is fast approaching and at GoHealth Urgent Care, we wanted to take this opportunity to provide you with some health education about a common childhood illness: Croup.

Croup can be scary for parents as well as their children. 

What is croup?

Croup is a viral infection that causes swelling of the voice-box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea) making the airway below narrower and causing breathing to be noisy and difficult.  Children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years old are most likely to get croup. It’s not as common after age three, because the windpipe is larger, so it’s less likely to get affected by swelling. Croup can occur any time of the year but it is more common during the winter months. 

When a cough forces air through this narrowed passage, the swollen vocal cords produce a noise similar to a seal barking. Likewise, taking a breath often produces a high-pitched whistling sound (stridor).

What are the symptoms of croup in a child?

Croup often begins as a typical cold. If there is enough inflammation and coughing, a child will develop a loud barking cough. This often is worse at night and is further aggravated by crying and coughing, as well as anxiety and agitation, setting up a cycle of worsening symptoms. Fever and a hoarse voice are common, too.

Symptoms of croup usually last for three to five days. The majority of cases of croup can be treated at home.

How can you ease a croup cough?

Croup can be scary, especially if it lands your child in the doctor's office, urgent care, or emergency room.  In the meantime, you can help keep your child comfortable with a few simple measures:

  • Stay calm. Comfort or distract your child — cuddle, read a book or play a quiet game. Crying makes breathing more difficult.
  • Moisten the air. Although there's no evidence of benefit from this practice, many parents believe that humid air helps a child's breathing. You can use a humidifier or sit with the child in a bathroom filled with steam generated by running hot water from the shower.
  • Hold your child in a comfortable upright position. Hold your child on your lap, or place your child in a favorite chair or infant seat. Sitting upright may make breathing easier.
  • Offer fluids. For babies, water, breast milk, or formula is fine. For older children, soup or frozen fruit pops may be soothing.
  • Encourage rest. Sleep can help your child fight the infection.
  • Try a fever reducer. If your child has a fever, over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may help.
  • Skip the cold medicines. Over-the-counter cold preparations aren't recommended for children younger than age 2. Plus, nonprescription cough medicines won't help croup.

If your child's symptoms are severe or lasting beyond three to five days and worsen, GoHealth doctors may recommend and prescribe a type of steroid to reduce inflammation in the airway. Benefits will usually be felt within six hours, so you can start the path to wellness sooner than you think! Croup cough is a lower respiratory infection, but you should also be aware of other respiratory infection symptoms that can cause ear infections or the common cold.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant