A Pharmacists Guide to managing children’s coughs
By Sheena Mitchell, Pharmacist and mum of three school going children
Unfortunately, coughs make a regular appearance in every home during the cooler Autumn and Winter seasons. The school environment is typically the place where many of the cough, cold and flu viruses are in greatest circulation. A lack of suitable ventilation in tightly packed classrooms that run too hot or too cold, combined with imperfect hygiene practices amongst little ones, leads to a greater incidence of infection.
Thankfully we have learned valuable lessons from the coronavirus pandemic around virus transmission, and how to best mitigate that with regular handwashing, cough etiquette and the use of face masks. However, with face masks no longer mandatory and many of these airborne viruses so easily transmitted, it is inevitable that children will still become ill over the colder months while they are at school.
Managing the Symptoms
As parents, we want our children to miss as little of their formal education as possible. We have seen the effect that this has on their learning and social growth and development during the pandemic. However, with coughs in particular on the rise, how can we manage these symptoms and our children’s recovery better?
A cough in children is usually caused by the common cold, it can also be caused by other things such as bacterial infections, sinus infections, or even allergies. Coughing can disrupt sleep and cause irritation and distress to children and their parents. It is really important to ensure that child takes plenty of fluids when they are unwell, especially if they have a cough.
There are several different types of coughs, and knowing the difference is important for parents. Your local community pharmacist can be very helpful in advising parents on the best natural and over-the-counter medicines to try for their child’s age and type of cough before visiting the doctor.
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Remember, if your child’s cough persists for longer than a week or they show any signs of having difficulty breathing, do not hesitate to bring them to see a doctor.
A chesty cough is one where mucus is present. A post-nasal drip is often present too, which causes mucus to travel from the nasal passageways and sinuses into the back of the throat and chest. A post-nasal drip is often the result of a cold, sinus infection, change in weather or from allergies. It usually produces a cough that is worse at night which can be exhausting for both parents and children alike.
A dry or irritating cough, that is without the presence of mucus, is often due to infection, an allergen, or some form of irritant such as dust or pollen. It is good to treat it with nasal saline to remove any irritants together with a cough bottle suitable for the child’s age.
A barking cough is an indication of inflamed or constricted airways. This can be distressing for a young child who may find it difficult to catch their breath, especially at night. I always recommend the use of an air humidifier in a child’s bedroom to help with the overnight coughing.
A wheezy cough or wheeze in your child’s breathing can indicate the presence of asthma or bronchiolitis. Bronchiolitis is a viral infection of the airways in your child’s lungs. The most common cause of bronchiolitis is the respiratory synctial virus (RSV). It usually occurs in young babies but can present in children up to age 4 years with most cases occurring between November and March.
The symptoms of bronchiolitis usually peak between 3-5 days and include a persistent dry cough, runny nose, wheezing and poor feeding. Bronchiolitis is similar to a cold in that there is no direct treatment to kill the virus, so it is really about treating the symptoms. It usually clears up itself within about two weeks, however it is important to visit your doctor for a diagnosis and if any of your child’s symptoms worsen.
A cough that is followed by a whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection called pertussis. The sound is as a result of a child taking deep breaths after coughing all of the air in their lungs out. You will need to seek medical treatment from your doctor for whooping cough.
Pertussis (whooping cough) can be prevented by vaccination. A pertussis vaccine is given to children as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age. A booster vaccine dose is given at 4-5 years of age (4 in 1 vaccine) with another booster dose given in 1st year of secondary school.
Natural Cough Treatments
My favourite product for soothing coughs is an air humidifier as it helps to break down mucus in chesty coughs and moistens the airways in dry irritating coughs. It is a natural option that is best used in the overnight period. All you need is water for the device, but I like to add a few drops of Olbas oil to help clear the airways.
Another natural option that is great for both preventing and easing persistent coughs and congestion is salt therapy. I recommend the Salin Plus air purifier, a small fan machine perfect for bedrooms. It works by pushing air through a filter, so the micro-crystalline salts create a fine constant spray for the recommended 8-hours of use daily.
Salt therapy is thought to work through its mucolytic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also a negatively charged ion, so it stimulates the respiratory airways helping mucous to flow through the membranes. The salt sits on the membranes and draws the mucous out by osmosis. This allows for clearer airways, improved removal of mucus from the chest and easier breathing. In my experience, many respiratory conditions benefit hugely from this natural salt therapy when used on a consistent basis, including asthma, bronchitis, allergies, sinusitis, laryngitis and even snoring!
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Think Pharmacist First
Your local pharmacist is a free accessible healthcare professional in your community, who can help to guide you through various at-home treatments and advise you when it is time to visit your GP.
You can find more information and tips on how to identify and treat common illnesses and conditions that affect the family on the Wonderbaba.ie pharmacy advice website. Or tune into the Wonderbaba podcast for more expert advice and insights into how other families are facing their healthcare challenges head on. Find a WonderBaba Podcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you stream your podcasts.