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Croup: signs and symptoms to look for this season

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Croup is very common in young children but that doesn’t make it any easier for parents. 

We’ve put together a quick guide to help parents spot the signs and symptoms of croup, and when to seek help from a healthcare professional. 

What is croup?

Croup is a reaction to a virus (usually the cold) that causes an infection in the voice box and windpipe (trachea and larynx). The infection causes the airway to swell, and because children’s airways are already quite narrow, this can make it hard for them to breathe.

Croup mainly affects young children between six months and five years old.

Importantly, if your child is having trouble breathing, seek urgent medical attention.

Signs and symptoms of croup

Croup usually follows a cold (runny nose, fever, cough) and can appear “without warning in the middle of the night.”

Signs include:

  • a barking cough that is worse at night 
  • your child’s voice becoming hoarse
  • stridor – when you can hear a high pitched sound when your child breathes in.

The website says: “The symptoms are often worse at night, and are at their worst on the second or third night of the illness. The signs and symptoms of croup may last for three to four days; however, a cough may linger for up to three weeks. The stridor should not persist.”

When to see a doctor for croup

Parents should always seek medical attention if their child is having difficulty breathing. If your baby is six months and under, and you think they might have croup, see your GP. 

Call an ambulance if your child is displaying any of the following symptoms:

  • breathing or swallowing difficulties
  • noisy breathing
  • lips turning blue, pale skin
  • drowsiness.

Additionally, you should see a doctor if your child’s skin between their ribs sucks when they breathe in, has stridor when calm and resting or if they are becoming stressed. 

How is croup treated?

A mild case of croup – for example, your child might have the barking cough but no stridor – can usually be managed at home. The RCHM says to keep your child calm as it’s harder for them to breathe when they are upset. Keep an eye on your child’s temperature; if a fever is present, you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen. 

“Steam and humidifiers are no longer recommended as a treatment. There is no evidence to suggest they are beneficial,” says the RCHM. 

If your child’s croup is severe, a doctor may prescribe steroids to help reduce the swelling in the airway. Severe cases mean children will need to stay in the hospital and be monitored. 

Because a viral infection causes croup, doctors won’t prescribe antibiotics.

Is croup contagious?

As croup is something that happens in reaction to a virus, it’s not something that can be spread. That said, the virus that causes croup can be passed on to others, like a cold. 

Can croup be prevented?

The best way to stop the spread of a virus is to:

  • wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds
  • cough and sneeze into your elbow or tissue
  • keep surfaces clean. 

If you’re worried about your child for any reason, always seek medical advice. You know your child better than anyone, so remember to trust your instincts. 

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