All parents know that small children are prone to coughs and colds, especially in the colder, wetter winter months. Normally these infections (known as upper respiratory tract infections, or URTIs) are short-lived and don't cause much alarm. They are usually due to viruses and cannot be cured. Treatment is a matter of reducing the symptoms with things such as paracetemol (e.g. Panadol) for temperatures and decongestants to make life more comfortable.
But sometimes the infection can be more serious, putting the child at risk. One such condition is croup. This is a viral infection affecting the larynx (voice box) and trachea (upper part of the windpipe). Croup is most common in children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. It is worse at night.
The affected child has a dry ‘barking’ cough and may develop stridor, a high pitched whistle or grunt, when they breathe. In small children the upper airway can occasionally become obstructed. This can be a life-threatening complication requiring urgent hospital admission. If you think that your child is struggling to breathe, dial 000 immediately so that your child can receive emergency treatment.
The treatment of croup in its mild stages consists of reassuring the child (a frightened child takes rapid shallow breaths which don't let much air into their lungs). Sitting your child upright can help open up their airway and make breathing easier.
Placing children in a situation where there is warm, moist air has been widely used for treating croup for many years. Running a hot shower in the bathroom is one way to do this, but beware of scald injuries. It is possible to obtain special machines (humidifiers, vaporisers) which can create a similar steamy atmosphere. However, the current thinking is that breathing humidified air does not help improve symptoms.
If your child's croup is not settling, seek help. Danger signs are when breathing is obviously difficult, the child is tiring, the chest wall is sucked inwards with breathing, stridor is present when the child is sleeping, the child looks very pale or blue or becomes very restless and irrational. If in doubt, call the ambulance or take them to the doctor or emergency department.
Last Reviewed: 27 May 2009