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Croup in children

Woman tucking in her child with croup into bed
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If your baby or child has a hoarse cough or is finding it hard to breathe, they may have croup.

This common condition is normally nothing to worry about. However if you suspect that your child has croup, or their symptoms get worse, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to ease symptoms quicker.

Here we share the common causes and symptoms of croup as well as how to look after a child with croup at home.

What is croup?

Croup is a viral illness that typically affects babies’ and young children’s airways. Adults and teenagers can also get croup however this is very rare.

Symptoms are usually mild and go away on their own after a couple of days, however you should always call NHS 111 if you think your child has croup as they may require treatment.

What causes croup in children?

Croup is a seasonal infection that typically occurs in late autumn, normally affecting children from 6 months to 3 years old.

The most common cause is a virus known as parainfluenza that infects the upper airways including the voice box and windpipe. This inflammation can make it more difficult to breathe. In rare cases, spasmodic croup is thought to be caused by an allergy or reflux.

What are the symptoms of croup?

The most common symptoms of croup are:

  • A distinctive barky cough (sounds like a seal)
  • A rasping sound when breathing in (also known as stridor)
  • A hoarse voice
  • Difficulty breathing

Symptoms are often worse at night and start with those of a cold such as a runny nose, fever and cough.

Is croup contagious?

Croup is an airborne virus meaning that it is spread through being in close contact with infected people and by breathing in droplets from infected coughs or sneezes. It can also be transmitted by touching contaminated objects and surfaces.

How long is croup contagious for?

Croup is contagious for around 3 days after symptoms first start to show or until the fever has gone.

How is croup diagnosed

There is no test for croup; it can only be diagnosed by its symptoms. If you think your child has croup then you should speak to your GP as soon as possible. They will be able to rule out any other causes and ensure they get the right treatment.

How to treat croup

You should call NHS 111 or see your GP if your child shows symptoms of croup, or if you have any concerns. Croup can normally be treated at home and will get better within 48 hours.

During this time, make sure to keep yourself and your child calm. Comfort them if they are distressed as crying can worsen symptoms and give them lots of fluids to help them stay hydrated. It can also help to keep your child sitting upright.

Don’t give them any cough or cold medicines, however you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with a high temperature. Just remember to always read the label and follow dosage advice. Lastly, avoid putting your child in a steamy environment or allowing them to inhale steam.

Some children may need to go to hospital if they are under 3 months old or their symptoms are severe or get worse.

Shop croup treatments

Croup complications

Croup very rarely causes complications. However if your child’s airways become obstructed and aren’t treated properly, they may experience severe breathing difficulty or respiratory arrest. Always call 999 if your child struggles to breathe.

Sometimes children may develop a secondary infection following the initial virus. In some cases, this can then cause pneumonia, a chest infection that causes swelling of lung tissue, or bacterial tracheitis, a rare but potentially life-threatening infection.

Other possible complications can include an ear infection or lymphadenitis where the lymph nodes become infected.

How to prevent croup

Croup is a contagious infection and can be spread in a similar way to the common cold. There are things you can do to prevent you or your family getting croup:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Use hand sanitiser
  • Clean surfaces and objects
  • Make sure your child is up to date with their routine vaccinations

In summary, croup is a common virus that affects children from 6 months old. The symptoms can be worrying however it usually gets better on its own after 48 hours. If you think your child has croup or you have any concerns about their breathing, make sure to call NHS 111 or speak to your GP as soon as possible.

Get more advice on children’s illnesses including how to treat bronchitis and the symptoms of flu in children. You can also stock up on childrens’ cough, cold and flu medicine and treatments for sore throats.