A bark-like cough in a child is a symptom of croup, a condition characterized by inflammation of the trachea and larynx. The condition most commonly affects children between the ages of six months and three years. Although croup can be alarming to parents as well as afflicted children, most cases of the illness respond well to home treatment.
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Airway constriction associated with inflammation of the trachea and larynx can trigger abnormal vibrations in the larynx during coughing, according to the Mayo Clinic. This results in the classic bark-like sound of croup. Common underlying causes of airway inflammation include the parainfluenza virus and the respiratory syncytial virus. Other respiratory viruses may also trigger croup symptoms, and in rare circumstances bacteria may also cause croup. If your child has a mild cold, he may also develop a rapid-onset form of the condition called spasmodic croup, the Nemours Foundation reports. Frequently, croup symptoms are worse at bedtime or when your child is crying.
In some cases, the upper airway inflammation associated with croup progresses even further, producing increased breathing difficulties and a distinct squeaking or high-pitched tone called stridor, according to the Nemours Foundation. Additional signs of increased problems include extremely rapid breathing and a retraction, or inward pull, of the skin over your child’s ribs during breathing. In a worst-case scenario, breathing obstructions associated with croup may trigger oxygen deprivation and a noticeable bluish or pale tone in the skin surrounding your child’s mouth. In addition to upper airway problems, croup viruses can trigger inflammation in the passageways leading to your child’s lungs.
You can treat croup at home by exposing your child to moist air for a few minutes at a time, the Nemours Foundation explains. Common options for providing this air include use of a cool mist humidifier and exposing your child to steam created by a hot shower. If your child gets croup during cool weather, you can also try taking him outside for brief periods of time or driving him in a car that has its windows down. If croup symptoms trigger physical discomfort, you can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease your child’s distress. You may also want to sleep near your child to monitor his breathing.
If your child’s croup symptoms are serious or persistent, or you suspect blockage of your child’s airways, you should seek medical attention, the Nemours Foundation notes. To reduce the swelling associated with inflammation, your child’s doctor may prescribe various forms of steroids. If swelling becomes severe, she may also prescribe epinephrine, also called adrenalin, to rapidly reduce inflammation and ease breathing. In some cases, your child may also receive oxygen or require an overnight stay in a hospital.
You can help prevent croup with the same general precautions you would use to prevent a cold or flu, the Mayo Clinic explains. Common steps here include frequent hand washing, coughing or sneezing in the crook of an elbow instead of the hands and avoidance of people who are ill.