Croup symptoms and treatments

12 Jan 2023
Stefano Mirabello
Stefano Mirabello
Medical Writer
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Croup is a viral infection of the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea) that affects the throat and upper airways. It is commonly seen in children, usually between the ages of 6 months and 3 years of age. Sometimes it may affect older children but is much more common among young children. Croup is most commonly caused by the parainfluenza virus, but can also be caused by other viruses such as influenza, adenovirus, or respiratory syncytial virus.

While croup is a common childhood illness, it can be scary for both parents and children. Knowing the symptoms and treatments of croup can help you feel more prepared if your child ever experiences it.

What is croup?

Croup is a common upper respiratory illness that affects a child’s breathing. It’s caused by a virus, most often the Parainfluenza virus.

These viruses can inflame airway passages in the throat and chest, leading to thickened mucus and coughing. The virus can spread through contact with an infected person via droplets when they cough or sneeze. In older children, these viruses may cause cold-like symptoms, but in younger children who are more vulnerable to illness, it can cause croup.

Though it can be very contagious, croup is generally a mild infection that lasts anywhere from three to five days before improving on its own. However, if your child’s cough causes them breathing problems, they begin drooling or have difficulty swallowing contact a doctor right away they might need serious medical attention.

What are the symptoms of croup?

The most recognisable symptom of croup is a barking or seal-like cough, and hoarse voice. This is caused by swelling of the throat, vocal cords, and windpipe (trachea). Symptoms of croup can start suddenly and may include a fever with cold-like symptoms like a runny nose, congestion, and a sore throat. As the airway becomes narrower due to inflammation, it makes it harder for air to move in and out of the lungs leading to noisy breathing (stridor) causing a whistling sound.

Other signs to watch out for are fast or impaired breathing that may worsen at night, difficulty eating or drinking, sleep disturbances, lethargy, agitation, or rapid chest movement. If you notice any of these symptoms in your child then consult your doctor as soon as possible as croup needs to be treated properly to prevent serious complications from happening.

How does a GP diagnose croup?

When it comes to diagnosing croup, your GP will first want to know the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. The GP’s next step is then to listen carefully to the sound of your breathing. A classic symptom of croup includes a loud bark-like cough and stridor (a hoarse, high-pitched noise). A doctor may also order a chest x-ray or arrange tests such as spirometry (to measure how well your lungs are working) or blood tests to rule out other conditions. With all of this information, the GP can accurately diagnose croup and provide the necessary care and treatment.

What is the best treatment for croup?

Croup can be a very concerning illness for parents, but luckily, several effective treatments can provide relief to your child. Cases can range in severity from mild croup to severe cases. The most common forms of treatment involve increasing moisture in the air and administering either oral or inhaled steroids.

Medication

For mild cases of croup, treatment often centres around increasing the humidity at home and helping your child to stay comfortable with measures such as paracetamol and ibuprofen for pain, warm humidified air to help to breathe, and making sure your child drinks plenty of fluids.

In severe cases, however, treatment may be needed from a doctor or emergency department. They may recommend steroid medications like dexamethasone, epinephrine treatments through intramuscular injection or nebuliser inhalants containing high doses of medication including epinephrine, albuterol and budesonide. These drugs reduce swelling around the larynx and make breathing easier for the patient. In extreme cases, a tracheotomy might even be performed although this is very rare.

Keep in mind that medications have potential side effects so it is important to discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider.

Home treatments

There are some home remedies you can use to help relieve the symptoms of croup while your little one recovers.

  • Providing your child with humidified air can help to reduce the throat inflammation that is causing the distinctive barking cough associated with croup. This can be done by running hot water over a towel in the bathroom as this produces a warm humid atmosphere, or using a cool mist humidifier in their bedroom at night
  • Ensuring plenty of fluids are taken throughout the day helps to lubricate their throat and make coughing easier, so it might be worth increasing their regular intake of water. Keeping your child elevated works too – propping up pillows beneath them when they lie down will help open up their airways and allow better breathing.
  • Encouraging them to take deep breaths or breathe slowly into a paper bag can also work wonders as it increases oxygen flow in the lungs and relieves tightness.

While these methods may not cure croup altogether, they should provide some much-needed relief while they recover from this difficult illness.

What can happen if croup is left untreated?

Croup can become dangerous and life-threatening if left untreated. As the croup gets worse, it can cause inflammation in the throat and windpipe, which can lead to difficulty breathing. In severe croup, if the airway becomes completely blocked, the child may need emergency medical help to restore breathing. Not seeking treatment for croup promptly may prevent medications from working optimally and can cause serious side effects. The earlier treatment is sought after symptoms appear, the better chance there is of avoiding any extreme health risks. If you think your child has croup or they start showing any symptoms such as a deep barking cough or noisy breathing, it’s important to get medical advice right away to avoid further complications.

How is croup different from other common respiratory infections?

The distinct bark-like cough often described as a seal’s bark makes your child’s symptoms easily distinguishable from other respiratory infections such as bronchitis, which cause persistent coughing, but rarely make a sound like barking.

Croup also tends to have a shorter incubation period than other diseases of the lungs, typically presenting itself within five days of exposure. Lastly, unlike many other common respiratory infections, croup is caused by a virus rather than bacteria, so antibiotics will not be effective in treating it and need to be prescribed carefully.

Knowing the difference between croup and other respiratory infections can help you get the right treatment for your child quickly and effectively.

How can you prevent croup?

The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of your child getting croup.

  • Make sure your child’s vaccinations are up to date. A number of your child’s routine vaccinations also protect against some of the infections that can cause croup.
  • Since viruses spread through contact with infected surfaces and droplets in the air, frequent hand washing is recommended. It also pays to refrain from sharing items such as toys and utensils with people who may have been recently exposed to the virus
  • Try to avoid crowded places during cold and flu season
  • Using a humidifier at home can help keep the air in your living space moist this inhibits the spread of airborne viruses like croup

Following these guidelines should help ensure that you and your household enjoy healthy winter months free from croup-related worries.

If you suspect your child has croup you must seek medical attention right away so they can receive prompt treatment and avoid any potential complications due to lack of oxygen supply caused by narrowing airways. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for managing croup symptoms successfully so do not hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you have any concerns regarding your child’s health.

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