Croup is a swelling of the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea). Croup can be caused by allergies, bacteria, or inhaled irritants, but it's usually the result of a virus.
Croup is most common in children between the ages of 3 months and 5 years, although a child can get croup at any age. The illness shows up most frequently in the colder months. Most cases of croup today are not serious, but a severe case can require hospitalization.
Because croup swells the throat and voice box, it alters the sound of your child's cough. If your child has a very hoarse, deep cough that sounds like a barking seal, it's probably croup. In fact, this cough is so distinctive that your doctor can probably tell you whether it's croup just by listening to your child over the phone.
Croup often appears after several days of cold symptoms and usually gets worse at night. As it continues, your child may have difficulty breathing, a high-pitched screeching noise when he inhales. He may also have a hoarse voice and run a low fever.
Croup is often worst the first two or three nights, and it usually goes away in a week or so. Today, the vaccines protect children against some of the more dangerous forms of croup. Most cases these days are mild and go away within a week without any problems. If your child has a severe case of croup, however, it can lead to serious breathing difficulties.
If your child has labored breathing or stridor when she's resting, take her to the hospital. While these symptoms can be part of a coughing fit, their appearance when your child is resting may mean that she has serious, potentially life-threatening swelling in her throat.
Of course, if your child seems to be struggling for breath and drooling, or her lips or skin are turning blue, call emergency services right away.
If this is your child's first attack of croup and the doctor determines that he has a mild case, you should be able to treat him at home. Moist or cold air seems to reduce the swelling of the airways, so it may be helpful to take your child into a steamy bathroom or out into the cold night air for 15 to 20 minutes. Sitting straight up or standing will help him breathe more easily. If your child is too young to sit up straight or stand, try holding him upright. A cool-mist humidifier in your child's room can help you maintain a humid environment. Also make sure your child is getting plenty of fluids.
Don't give your child cough medicine. It won't have any effect on the swelling in his throat, and it can make it harder for him to cough up mucus. Antibiotics won't help, either, since a virus is probably the culprit, not bacteria.
If the steamy bathroom and cold air techniques don't provide any relief, the doctor may prescribe oral steroids to reduce the swelling and help your child breathe more easily. If your child has a severe case of croup that requires hospitalization, he may be given oxygen, an inhaled medication, or steroids to help reduce the swelling of his airways.
If your child's croup is the result of allergies or irritants, the virus that's causing it is contagious, so keep your child home until she's free of symptoms.
As with most illnesses, your first line of defense is frequent hand washing with soap and water. When possible, keep your child away from anyone who has a respiratory infection. And be sure to get any child older than 6 months vaccinated every year against the flu.