Croup 101: What Parents Need to Know

What is croup?

Croup is an infection of the upper airway, most often caused by a common virus (parainfluenza) during the fall and winter.  The infection causes swelling around the vocal cords and trachea, which leads to the typical “seal-bark” cough. It can also cause a high-pitched noise called stridor when your child breathes in.  

What other symptoms are common with croup?

You may notice the typical symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose and fever. Often, the barky cough begins at night, and gets worse when the child gets upset and cries. Croup typically lasts 3-5 days.

Who gets croup?

Croup is most common in children under age of three due to their small airways, although older children can also have croup symptoms. The virus that typically causes croup can be passed on by breathing in respiratory droplets from a cough, or from playing with toys that have the virus on them.

What can I do to make my child feel better at home?

Helping your child remain calm by snuggling upright or reading a book will typically reduce croup symptoms. Many parents see improvement by bringing their child into an area with high humidity, such as a bathroom filled with steam from a shower. Sips of clear fluids, fever reducers and rest are also recommended.

How can a medical provider help if my child’s symptoms aren’t getting better at home?

Medical treatment is required if your child has worsening symptoms, including rapid breathing, difficulty catching his or her breath, persistent stridor, swallowing difficulties or lethargy.   Croup can be treated with corticosteroids, which reduce airway swelling. If symptoms are severe enough, inhaled racemic epinephrine is used in the Emergency Department to further reduce symptoms.  

Things to tell your doctor:

  • What the cough sounds like (barky? wet? nonstop?)
  • Is the cough all day, or just at night?  Is it worse when upset?
  • Has there been a fever with the cough?  
  • Does your child have a history of croup, asthma, or any other medical conditions?

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