Croup is a common childhood condition that causes swelling and inflammation of the upper airways, particularly the trachea and larynx. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the illness typically affects children between the ages of three months and five years and is most likely to occur during the fall and winter months.
In the initial stages of croup, your child will have cold-like symptoms, including nasal congestion, coughing, and fever. As the inflammation worsens, breathing becomes obstructed and your child will develop a distinctive barking cough. The cough gets noticeably worse at night and can be exacerbated by crying.
Croup can also cause your child’s voice to become hoarse, and as the upper airway swells, he or she may have difficulty breathing. You may hear a squeak as the child breaths in and may see inward movement of the skin at the base of the neck at the same time. If your child appears in distress, you will want to call your doctor.
In most cases, croup is caused by a virus, most commonly a parainfluenza virus that has infected the larynx and trachea. Parainfluenza can be transmitted by exposure to droplets from other infected people, or the virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.
Most cases of croup are not serious and can be successfully treated at home. For many children, breathing moist or cool air can significantly improve breathing and reduce symptoms. If you live in a cool climate, you can try taking your child outdoors to breathe in the cool night air. Placing a humidifier or cold-water vaporizer in your child’s room while he or she is sleeping can also be beneficial. If you live somewhere warm, you can stand in front of an open freezer or try sitting in a steamy bathroom.
Your child’s pediatrician may also prescribe a steroid medication to lessen inflammation and improve breathing. Corticosteroids and epinephrine can reduce swelling within the upper airways. If your child’s symptoms become frightening to you or him or her, you should seek emergency medical care.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, May 2020
- Croup is usually caused by a virus and causes inflammation of the vocal cords and windpipe.
- The illness is characterized by a barking cough.
- Symptoms are often much worse at night.
- Croup is usually not serious and can be treated with self-care measures at home.