A harsh, barking cough is a distinctive sign of croup, a common respiratory problem in young children.

Another distinctive sign is stridor, a high-pitched, ‘squeaking’ sound when a child breathes in.

What is croup?

Croup is usually caused by a viral infection and can develop from a common cold. “Croup is usually a mild illness and most children can recover at home with rest and proper care,” says the Department of Respiratory Medicine at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), a member of the SingHealth group.

In croup, the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea) become swollen and inflamed. This causes narrowing of the upper airways, which affects the child’s breathing and produces a cough. Croup usually lasts for 3 to 7 days.

Causes and risk factors for croup

Croup is usually caused by the parainfluenza virus, though other viruses have been known to trigger it. Children aged 6 months to 3 years are particularly susceptible to croup. The symptoms of croup are usually worse in children below the age of 3 because they have smaller airways.

“Children can pick up a viral infection from contaminated surfaces, including toys, or by breathing in viruses in the air,” says our specialists. Frequent hand washing and avoiding contact with people who are ill can prevent croup infection.

Symptoms of croup

The symptoms of croup, which generally get aggravated at night and when the child is agitated and crying, include the following:

  • Barking cough which sounds like the bark of a seal

  • Stridor

  • Hoarse voice

  • Fever

“Stridor occurs as the opening between the vocal cords becomes narrower. Stridor is usually more obvious with crying or coughing initially, but can occur during sleep and at rest when the illness worsens subsequently,” says our specialists.

A doctor will diagnose croup after a physical examination that includes examining your child’s throat and observing the breathing.

Complications of croup

Most cases of croup are mild, and do not require hospitalisation.

You should seek immediate medical attention for your child if the croup symptoms persist for more than a week, if your child has underlying medical problems (e.g. heart or lung disease, muscle weakness, etc.) or if your child displays the following symptoms:

  • Fast or difficult breathing

  • Stridor

  • Decreased activity and lethargy

  • Poor feeding with signs of dehydration

  • Drooling or difficulty swallowing

  • Blue or grey skin around the nose, mouth or fingernails

Treatment for croup

As with all viral infections, ensure lots of fluids and rest for your child.

Croup medications: Your doctor may prescribe a steroid to your child to reduce the swelling of the windpipe and vocal cords. In some severe cases, an inhalation treatment with adrenaline and oxygen may also be given.

5 Tips to manage a child suffering from croup

  1. Hold your child upright to make breathing easier.

  2. Encourage your child to drink lots of fluids and have plenty of rest for a faster recovery.

  3. Warm, moist air: You can run a hot shower to create a steam-filled bathroom where you can sit with your child for 5-10 minutes. This can sometimes help your child breathe easier and stop coughing bouts.

  4. Smoke exposure: Avoid having anyone smoke near your child, as this may make your child's symptoms worse.

  5. Close observation: You may consider sleeping in the same room as your child when he is ill, so that you can monitor him more closely.

Ref: R14