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Catching a cold is a normal part of being a child. Coughing that comes along with the cold is a key part of the body’s recovery process, even if it feels and sounds as though your child’s symptoms could be getting worse.
Katie Lockwood, MD, MEd, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, Flourtown, shares ways in which parents can help their child through their cold and soothe their cough.
What is coughing?
Coughing is typical when a child has a cold, and rarely indicates something more severe. “The cough reflex clears out excessive mucus and protects the lungs from pneumonia,” says Dr. Lockwood. “This is one of the reasons why we don’t like to give cough suppressant medications.” A cough is a normal part of most viral respiratory infections.
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Sounds result from the vibrations of mucus in the nose or pooling in the lower throat. “This is what sometimes causes the ‘rattling in the chest’ you might hear,” says Dr. Lockwood. However, wheezing or a barky, seal-like, cough is not normal and is a reason to call your pediatrician.
Is coughing normal?
Coughing up mucus is actually a sign the cold is improving. “Coughing up mucus tells us the infection is starting to break up and the child is coughing up the damaged cells, although not all children are able to generate a cough deep enough to cough up mucus, and might swallow it,” says Dr. Lockwood.
When mucus is coming up, the cough may sound more wet or deeper, but if the child is otherwise improving, a change in the sound of the cough can be ok.
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Despite what it might look like, “yellow or green sputum (phlegm) is part of the normal healing phase of viruses. It does not mean there is a bacterial infection,” says Dr. Lockwood.
A cough can last a while longer than the cold itself. “A post-viral cough can take up to three weeks to disappear as the trachea repairs itself,” adds Dr. Lockwood.
Over that time period, the cough should become less frequent and less severe.
What you can do to help your child cope with their cough
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Dr. Lockwood recommends making sure your child is as comfortable as possible when battling a cold.
- Some children don’t like to eat or drink while sick because of the pain of swallowing and run the risk of becoming dehydrated. So, it’s important to keep your child well hydrated throughout their cold. Dr. Lockwood recommends trying ice pops or smoothies.
- If your child is one year old or older, give them warm apple juice, milk or decaffeinated tea with honey in it. The warm liquid can soothe their throat and loosen the mucus.
- Help clear their chests with a cool mist humidifier or steamy shower.
Signs your child should see their primary care provider
“We would be concerned if your child is working harder to breathe, has shortness of breath, or is coughing up blood,” says Dr. Lockwood. Also, if your child had a cold with cough and then develops a new fever, they should call their primary care provider, as this can be a sign of a bacterial infection. “The color and consistency of mucus alone, doesn’t indicate a level of severity.”
If your child is breathing comfortably, hydrating, and has no fever, you can continue to treat them at home with the previously mentioned remedies.
Contact your pediatrician immediately if your child is exhibiting:
- Blood in the mucus
- Harder or faster breathing
- Using chest or abdominal muscles to breathe
- Tugging or flaring nostrils while breathing
- Uncontrolled fever