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What is croup & how is it treated?
Q: My 1-year- old had a cold and then developed a cough. When I called the doctor’s office, they asked, “Does he have a croupy cough?” What is croup? What causes it, and what’s the treatment?
A: Stephanie, croup is a very common illness in young children. Croup is the swelling and narrowing of the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea), usually caused by viral infections, like colds and flu. When your baby coughs or cries, the narrowed airway causes the “croupy cough” that sounds like the bark of a seal.

Croup is most common in children from 6 months to 3 years of age, when their airways are narrow. Most young children get croup only once or twice, but some get it with each respiratory illness. Croup is most common in the winter when viral respiratory illnesses are most common.

The best treatment for croup is having your child breathe steam. Take your child into the bathroom, turn on the hot shower, and sit with your child in the steamy bathroom for 15-20 minutes. The steam should help ease his breathing, but he may still have the croupy cough. Cool steam is even better than warm steam, so try putting your child to bed with a cold water vaporizer in his room. If the steam doesn’t help, sometimes just taking your baby outdoors to breathe the cold air can help.

Very rarely, children get a more serious case of croup that narrows their airway so much that it becomes difficult to breathe. Call your doctor or emergency medical services if your child has any of the following danger signs with croup:
  • Whistling sound when breathing in
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme drooling and inability to swallow
  • Very pale skin color with blue lips or fingernails
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician