Croup: What it is and how to help

My little one was diagnosed with croup. What is it and how can I help ease her symptoms?


Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Croup is a viral infection that causes swelling of the windpipe, just below the vocal cords. This infection may be caused by several types of viruses, but the most common cause is from a virus called parainfluenza. The viruses that cause croup are the same viruses that cause colds in older children and adults.

While family members who catch the same cold virus often have similar symptoms, this may not always be the case. It is the nature of cold viruses to cause different symptoms in different people. Thus, while a particular virus may cause achiness and fever in you, it may give me just a runny nose and sore throat; in one child it may give him pink eye, but in another child it may give her croup. Croup is a description of symptoms rather than a name for a disease caused by a specific virus.

What Are the Symptoms of Croup?

Croup usually appears after your child has had a cold (fever, runny nose, etc.) for several days. As the swelling of the windpipe increases, a high-pitched barky cough develops that sounds much like a seal. For most children, this is the extent of problems that occur. The barkiness of the cough lasts for a couple of days, although the cough itself may last for a few days longer.

However, for some children, the swelling of the windpipe becomes severe enough to impair the flow of air. This may cause noisy breathing upon inspiration (stridor) and a "pulling in" of the area beneath the adam's apple or between the ribs. All these signs point to an increased effort to breathe, in order for air to get past the swelling of the windpipe.

What if My Child Gets Croup?

When the symptoms of croup arise, it can be quite frightening both for the child and parent. However, crying and anxiousness make croup worse by causing additional tightness around the windpipe. Therefore, being calm and calming your child can help tremendously. Next, there are several interventions that may help relieve the symptoms of croup:

  1. One of the most effective things is for the child to breathe cold air. Since croup often occurs in the winter and at night, just going outside for 10 to 15 minutes can do wonders. The cold air decreases the swelling of the windpipe much like ice dereases the swelling of sprained ankle. Bundle yuor child up really well, and let her breathe the cold air.
  2. Mist caused from a steam bath may help. Go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn on the hot water in the bathtub full blast, being careful not to let the child near the water.
  3. Use a vaporizer to let your child breathe in the moist air.

When Should I Seek Medical Attention?

  1. If you think your child may have inhaled an object or food. Getting an object caught in the windpipe may cause many symptoms similar to croup.
  2. If your child's breathing is severe.
  3. If your child begins to drool.
  4. If your child has trouble swallowing.
  5. If your child becomes restless and cannot sleep.
  6. If a bluish color is seen around your child's lips
  7. If your child's breathing does not improve after trying the home treatments for 15 to 20 minutes.

I hope this helps.

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