As a pediatrician, I get a lot of questions about croup. Parents wonder: Is croup contagious? What are the symptoms? What does the cough sound like? These are all important questions, because croup in babies and little kids is common. And here’s the thing: With a little bit of info, you can help your croupy kid feel better — and keep croup from spreading to others. Here, I break down everything you need to know about croup.
Yes. Croup, which is caused by a variety of different viruses, most commonly the para-influenza virus, is very contagious. Children can spread the illness for three days after it starts and until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours.
How is it spread?
Croup is spread through contact with respiratory secretions from coughing and sneezing (think someone with croup coughs or sneezes without covering their mouth — common since it’s little kids we’re talking about — and then others breathe the germs in).
What does croup cough sound like?
It is a dry cough that sounds like a seal barking. Even though croup is typically mild, there are times when you should call your child’s doctor (see below).
What symptoms should you watch for?
The distinct cough. It will come on suddenly and be worse at night. The cough will sound dry for about 3 to 4 days and then will often transition to a wet sounding cough that can last up to 10 days. Additionally, children with croup may have:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- High-pitched sound when inhaling (known medically as stridor), in younger children
- Painful cough (in older children)
Who is most likely to get it, and when?
Children ages 3 months to 3 years are most likely to get croup. It is most common in fall and winter.
How is croup treated?
Since croup is caused by a virus, you have to wait it out. However, there are things you can do to help your child feel better. Having her breathe in steam is very helpful. Turn on the shower and get the bathroom really steamy and then sit in the bathroom (not the hot shower) for 15 to 20 minutes. In some cases, alternating steam with cool air either from an open window or the freezer can be helpful as well. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help reduce fever and discomfort. Additionally, make sure your child stays hydrated. If you hear a high-pitched sound when your child cries or coughs, see your pediatrician; she can prescribe a short course of oral steroids to help reduce the swelling in the airway and make breathing more comfortable and safer.
When should you call the doctor?
Call your pediatrician anytime you have questions or concerns about your child’s health. Additionally, you should call the doctor if your child has the following symptoms:
- A high-pitched sound with cough, crying, or exertion
- Fever lasting more than three days
- Appears to be sucking in, in the area between the ribs or the collar bone
Call 911 immediately if you notice any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or turning pale or blue with coughing
- Drooling or difficulty swallowing call 911
- A high-pitched sound when breathing while calm
If your child has had multiple episodes of croup, ask your pediatrician about seeing a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist.