Croup in children: what you need to know

Lead Nurse in Paediatrics at Bupa Cromwell Hospital
25 October 2016

Your child has been up in the night coughing. Could they have croup? And if so, will they be able to breathe okay? Here’s the lowdown on what to expect.

Image of a man holding his baby

Spotting the signs

Croup is caused by a viral infection. It triggers inflammation in the upper airways (voice box and windpipe), which can lead to swelling and a blockage. Croup mainly affects children between six months and three years, but can affect older children too. It’s a seasonal illness, mainly occurring in the autumn and spring months.

There’s no test for croup – it can only be diagnosed from the symptoms. Croup normally begins with a cold, such as a runny nose, sore throat and mild fever. If your child has croup, they'll then suddenly develop a distinctive seal-like barky cough. They may also have a hoarse voice and a harsh, high-pitched wheezing sound (called stridor) when they breathe in. These symptoms are usually worse at night.

If you think your child has croup, it’s important to speak to your GP. They’ll need to check there’s no other reason for the symptoms, such as something stuck in your child’s throat.

What can you do?

Croup can usually be managed at home and lasts for three or four days. Occasionally though, your child’s symptoms may last for up to two weeks. Croup isn’t caused by bacteria, so it can’t be treated with antibiotics.

The most important thing you can do is to keep your child relaxed and calm, as otherwise their coughing will get worse. Some parents find that taking their child into a steamy bathroom helps, but there’s no scientific research showing this works. Keep your child well hydrated with plenty of drinks and give them junior painkillers if they have a fever.

Keep an eye on your child, as their health can change very quickly. If their temperature rises rapidly, they could have a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, and will need antibiotics. See your GP if you’re at all worried.

Breathing naturally

It’s natural to feel anxious when your child has croup. But the cough usually sounds worse than it is. As long as your child’s windpipe isn’t completely inflamed, they will still be able to breathe in enough oxygen themselves. But your GP may decide to prescribe a single steroid dose for your child to help their breathing.

Most children with croup recover completely without any medical help. Very occasionally, a child with croup does need specialist hospital treatment if their symptoms are getting worse. This is usually because they’re not getting enough oxygen or are dehydrated because they’re not drinking enough fluids.

Seeking medical help

Take your child to the hospital if:

  • you can hear the stridor sound all the time
  • the skin between their ribs is pulling in with each breath
  • they’re restless or agitated

Call for an ambulance if:

  • your child’s face is very pale, blue or grey for more than just a few seconds
  • they’re having a lot of trouble breathing
  • their nostrils are flaring in and out
  • they’re unusually sleepy or not responding
  • they refuse to lie down and want to sit instead
  • they can’t talk or swallow
  • they begin to drool

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when you need it.

Dieter Aretz
Lead Nurse in Paediatrics at Bupa Cromwell Hospital

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