Croup Attack!

Dear Mamas,

We had the most frightening thing happen last night! Our little one is three, and he woke up at 2 AM with an awful cough that sounded just like a barking dog losing its voice. In between coughs he seemed to have a hard time catching his breath. It scared the #@%$ out of us! I’ve heard you say to always trust your mommy gut and mine was screaming. I called the on-call triage nurse, who could hear him in the background, and she said it sounded like croup but suggested we head to the ER just to be safe.

By the time we got there he was a bit better, but still had that scary cough. The doctors gave him a breathing treatment and some Tylenol and warned us that it might seem worse again tonight. What is croup, and how can we a) prevent it and b) handle it without getting scared to death?



Dear Stephanie,

We feel your anxiety coming right through the computer! An attack of croup can be scary, but it is rarely serious. Children usually get better in a few days. That said, you did exactly the right thing to have your guy checked out. Anytime a child has difficulty breathing you should seek medical care as soon as you can.

You mention that he seemed better by the time you arrived at the hospital, and that’s typical. The cool moist evening air works wonders, and is actually a mainstay of home  treatment.

Croup shows up a few days after the start of a cold and is usually caused by the same virus. It is contagious, and the virus can be passed from one person to another through coughing and sneezing.

It is most common during fall and winter. The main symptom is that harsh, barking cough you described perfectly. The virus causes swelling in the voice box and windpipe, making it hard for kiddos to breathe. If children are scared and crying it makes it worse and breathing can be even harder. Sometimes children have croup attacks for a couple of nights in a row, but the symptoms usually improve dramatically within a few days.

Home remedies will help. As you discovered, breathing in moist air can reduce the swelling. You may have heard about filling your bathroom with steam from the hot shower, but cool mist actually works better, so if you prefer not to go outside in the cool night air try a cool mist humidifier. Cigarette smoke will worsen the symptoms so avoid it, especially in the house. Be sure to keep your guy well hydrated with water, ice treats (such as Popsicles), or other drinks. Use acetaminophen for fever or discomfort as needed and know that things will improve in a few days.

Some kiddos seem more prone to croup than others, and if yours is one you’ll want to be sure to have your home remedies on hand and ready to go. When children get bigger they tend to outgrow croup as the windpipe matures. Any swelling caused by the viral infection goes unnoticed as the tubes grow wider.

These tips should ease your mommy gut and make the next episode (if there is one) less frightening.

Good Luck!

~ The Mamas

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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