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What To Do If Your Child Can't Stop Coughing

How To Help A Coughing Child

Written by Dr. Lina Patel - Genexa Healthcare Provider & Partner on October 17, 2021

Medically reviewed by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology

When a dry, nagging cough sets in for your child, they will likely be coughing very frequently and may have coughing fits.

A dry cough can be extremely uncomfortable and pesky, but the good news is that the cause is generally highly treatable and nothing to worry about too much. That said, the exact treatment plan for your child will partially depend on the cause of their cough, so before getting into the modes of treatment, here is a brief outline of some of the basics.

Common Causes of a Persistent Cough

A constant, persistent cough can be caused by several different things, but the most common causes of a persistent cough are all fairly easy to treat.

Common causes of a nagging cough include:

Postnasal Drip

When viruses, bacteria, allergens, or other particles make their way into your airway, they can wreak havoc by irritating your nasal passages and mucous membranes. As a result, the glands in your airway start to overproduce mucus, and postnasal drip occurs when the excess mucus begins to drip down your throat.

Postnasal drip can cause a persistent cough because the mucus irritates the nerves in your throat and airway, thus causing you to cough. Sometimes, postnasal drip can linger even after the initial cold or other infection has passed, and a cough from post nasal drip may be accompanied by a sore and irritated throat.

Asthma or Allergies

When it comes to asthma, both wheezing and shortness of breath are very common symptoms, but not all people dealing with asthma will experience this. Instead, some asthma patients may just have a persistent dry cough.

With asthma, this cough may be triggered by dust, pollen, or other allergens, and it will happen around the clock but might start during the nighttime. In a similar manner, a dry cough that is being caused by allergies will happen upon exposure to certain allergens.

If your child’s cough is being caused by allergies, allergy medicine can help get the symptoms under control.

Gastroesophageal Reflux

Though heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux, coughing can also happen without any heartburn at all. Basically, gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the contents of your child’s stomach travel upwards rather than downwards. Aside from coughing, your child may also experience heartburn, belching, a sour taste in their mouth, and bad breath.


When your child has bronchitis, it means the bronchial tubes in their airway have become inflamed, thus leading to a more narrow airway and an overproduction of mucus. As a result, your child will cough persistently, and this cough can hang around for weeks after the initial infection has cleared up.

These main causes of a nagging cough are nothing too serious. That said, if your child starts to experience certain, more concerning symptoms, it is a sign that you need to consult a doctor.

Indications that something more serious is going on include:

  • A fever, especially if it is high or prolonged
  • A cough that produces large amounts of mucus
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Wheezing, especially if this is a new problem

Though rare, persistent coughing can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition, like a lung infection or whooping cough, and being able to recognize symptoms of these more serious causes will help you seek medical attention more promptly.

The Key To Sleeping Off a Persistent Cough

With any kind of illness or infection, sleep is absolutely critical to a speedy recovery. When your child is asleep, their body is working hard to replenish and repair itself, and if your child is not sleeping enough this process will be impaired.

A persistent cough can certainly make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, but luckily, there are a few things you can try at bedtime that may make it easier for your little one to get those 8 hours of good-quality sleep.

Here are a few ways that you can calm your child’s cough at bedtime:

  • Give them some warm tea: Warm liquids are a great way to soothe your child’s irritated airways, so giving them some warm tea before bed may make a world of difference. Even better, adding some honey to the tea can help fight off infection. Just make sure the tea is caffeine-free, and do not give honey to infants.
  • Have your child inhale steam: Steam can work wonders when it comes to opening your child’s nasal passages, loosening mucus, and clearing out their airways. Thus, running a hot shower and letting your child sit in the steam-filled bathroom for a while can help calm their cough. This method is especially useful if your child is having coughing attacks. Trying this method before bed can soothe symptoms and may also help your little one relax.
  • Add moisture to the air: Dry air can aggravate a cough by further irritating the airways, so using a humidifier or vaporizer to add moisture to the air may help calm the cough and let your child sleep more easily.
  • Keep your child’s head elevated: Using an extra pillow or two to elevate your child’s head before they sleep helps prevent mucus from collecting in the back of their throat, thus helping to ease their cough.
  • Medicine: Consider trying cold or cough medicine for your child if it is appropriate, and time their dosages so that they get a dose before bedtime. This can help keep their symptoms under control while they sleep.

Aside from medicine and improved sleep, keeping your child very well hydrated can also help ease their cough. Drinking plenty of fluids can help loosen any mucus in their lungs, thus making it easier for your child to cough up, and it can also thin any mucus discharge from their nose, which is especially helpful if your kiddo has a cold or other illness.

It can be tough to figure out what is causing your child’s cough, especially because many illnesses and infections share overlapping symptoms. Because of this, it is important to avoid making assumptions and consult your doctor if you have uncertainties.

Some causes of a persistent cough will best be treated with prescription medication, which only your doctor can give you. If the cough is being caused by a viral infection, it may last 2 or 3 weeks. If it is being caused by a bacterial infection, a doctor will be able to prescribe antibiotics.

The Bottom Line

If your child cannot catch a break from their nagging, persistent cough, there are a few things that are likely culprits. Postnasal drip, asthma or allergies, bronchitis, or gastroesophageal reflux are four of the most common causes of a constant cough, and figuring out which ailment is the cause is the first step towards the proper method of treatment.

Sometimes, it can be tough to find the cause on your own, so do not hesitate to get in touch with your doctor if you have doubts or uncertainties. They will be able to make the final determination and will recommend any medicines or other treatment plans that are necessary.

A nagging cough is typically not caused by something serious, but if the symptoms worsen, do not respond to treatment, or are accompanied by other, concerning symptoms, you should consult a doctor to make sure nothing more serious is going on.


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