Cough in children
Coughs are common in school age children, occurring 7 to 10 times a year. Cough is a particularly bothersome symptom that tends to resolve slowly; half of children recover by 10 days and 90% by 25 days, suggesting that 10% of children still cough 3 to 4 weeks after falling ill.
Although cough is an important reflex defence mechanism to protect a child’s lungs and keep them clear, it can have a major impact on a child’s sleep, school performance and ability to play. A coughing child also disturbs other family members’ sleep and may be disruptive in the classroom, causing parents considerable anxiety.
What are the common causes of cough?
Cough is classified as acute or chronic. An acute cough lasts less than 3 weeks. A chronic cough lasts more than 8 weeks and is usually associated conditions such as asthma, allergy, post-viral cough and postnasal drip.
What is the difference between a wet and dry cough?
A wet cough is typically chesty and produces mucus. It may be difficult to be sure if a young child has a wet cough because most young children tend to swallow the mucus, which they often vomit later. A dry cough is tickly or irritating and no mucus is produced.
When should parents be concerned about a child’s cough?
Most acute coughs are due to a simple upper respiratory tract infection, however, children with any of the following signs should be taken to a doctor right away:
- Blue tint to the lips and/or skin (cyanosis)
- Loud squeaking noise when breathing in (stridor)
- Difficulty in breathing
- An ill appearance
- Spasms of uncontrollable, repetitive coughing followed by a high-pitched intake of air (whoop)
- Any child suspected of inhaling a foreign body (sudden onset of cough with no other symptoms)
- ‘Barking’ cough (croup)
- High fever or underlying lung disorders, e.g. asthma or cystic fibrosis
How is acute cough treated?
Acute cough following an upper respiratory tract infection is usually self-limiting but it can be difficult to control and significantly impair daily life. Most acute coughs are caused by viruses, which makes antibiotics generally ineffective. However, parents frequently seek over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to relieve their child’s cough.
A recent survey of cough mixtures found no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of these medicines in acute cough. Furthermore, cough mixtures may contain a combination of different active ingredients that are potentially harmful to children. Due to their small bodies and frequency of infections, young children are at higher risk of overdose, incorrect dosing, and side effects, especially if a cough mixture contains multiple ingredients.
A closer look at mucolytics: how they work and when to use them
Mucus in our lungs is held together by disulfide bonds. Mucolytics work by breaking these bonds. When these bonds are broken, the mucus becomes less sticky and less thick and is easier to cough up. This can make it harder for germs to infect the mucus and cause chest infections. Mucolytics are useful to alleviate coughing, mucus production and airway obstruction.
What is N-acetylcysteine (NAC)?
NAC is the most commonly used mucolytic to loosen secretions from the respiratory tract. Scientific studies have shown that NAC reduces cough and has good overall safety in children older than 2 years. Evidence also suggests that NAC makes it harder for bacteria to stick to the inside of the airways.
Can I buy NAC?
Yes, you can buy NAC from your local pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription. NAC is available as an effervescent tablet and is suitable for children and adults – consult the label of the product before use.
What are some of the benefits of an effervescent tablet over a liquid formulation?
Studies have shown that more than 40 % of parents make errors when dosing liquid formulations. This is not surprising, given that parents can choose from an array of dosing tools with which to administer the medication, including the common kitchen spoon, which vary widely in size and shape. In addition, a range of measurement units (millilitre, teaspoon, tablespoon) and their associated abbreviations are used on medicine labels and dosing tools, adding to the confusion and errors.
In contrast, effervescent tablets contain a fixed dose per tablet, which eliminates the need for measuring tools and limits dosing errors. Effervescent tablets are also easy to use.
Children average 7 to 10 coughs a year, with a considerable impact on their wellbeing. Given that a cough can last up to 4 weeks, parents need to seek more effective treatment methods for their children. Evidence for the effectiveness of cough mixtures is not convincing and the combination of ingredients found in some cough mixtures is potentially harmful. In addition, dosing errors are common with liquid formulations, which increase the risk side effects in children due to their smaller body size. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is the most commonly used mucolytic and works by making mucus inside the lungs less sticky and easier to cough up. It is proven to reduce cough and has good overall safety ratings for children over the age of 2. NAC is available as an effervescent tablet, easy to use and convenient to carry around. Each tablet contains a fixed dose of NAC and can be pre-mixed in a bottle of water, limiting the possibility of dosing errors.
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