The scoop on croup: 6 things you should know

During cold season, parents should be prepared to know what is just a cold and what could be something more serious.

One of the most common conditions among young children with respiratory viruses is croup. Sarah Sharpless, a pediatric nurse practitioner with Pediatric Emergency Medicine Associates, helps address what parents need to know and what they should do if their child exhibits symptoms of croup.

What is croup?

Croup is a condition that causes an inflammation of the upper airways, and is one of the most common respiratory viruses, according to Croup is most common in children ages 6 months to 3 years, but it can affect children as old as 6, or as long as their airway remains the size of children in the target age range. Croup raises concerns among health professionals because it inhibits a child's ability to breathe.

What are the symptoms of croup?

Croup initially may appear as a common cold with cough, congestion and fever.

Once a child's airway continues to swell and become inflamed, parents will notice their child may become hoarse with a distinct, barking cough. Croup can be identified in kids who experience this cough late at night and early in the morning.

Although it's common for kids with a cold to have a sudden onset of coughing if they are active, concern arises when the child is persistently coughing during times of inactivity.

If your child makes a squeaking sound as he inhales during a time of rest, this is called stridor, which is another sign of croup. Sharpless identifies "stridor at rest" as a definite reason to seek medical attention.

As someone who sees mild to severe cases of croup on a regular basis in the emergency department at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, she urges parents who notice stridor at rest or difficulty breathing to take their child to the nearest emergency department or call 911.

If you need to take your child to the ER, we have tips to make the trip a little less stressful.

How is croup managed?

Since croup presents as a viral infection, it will need to run its course as a child is treated for symptoms.

If a child is constantly coughing, some health care providers suggest positioning him outside a hot shower so he can inhale the warm steam. Sharpless also encourages the use of cold mist humidifiers or a walk in the cool night air as a method for reducing inflammation.

In addition, Sharpless recommends cool, soft foods to help reduce swelling in the child's airway. Just as you would ice a knee after a sports injury, a Popsicle can have the same effect on a child's irritated windpipe.

As far as medicines go, oral steroids are prescribed to decrease swelling. In severe cases, nebulized epinephrine is administered. Kids who need this type of breathing treatment will require monitoring and re-evaluation, which often means a stay in the hospital.

"Stridor is a way of knowing your child's airway is still swollen, and this must be reduced in order for your child to regain his or her ability to effectively breathe," Sharpless said.

Is croup contagious?

Croup is contagious. Viruses can spread through the air as children cough and sneeze. If children touch a surface on which the virus lands, they can transmit it as they touch their eyes, noses and mouths. Kids can remain contagious for about three days after experiencing the illness or as long as their fever persists.

How to prevent croup

Proper hand hygiene is essential to protect kids from illness. Regular hand washing, and avoiding other children who are sick and contagious are recommended to prevent the spread of viruses that can lead to croup.

How serious is croup?

Croup can be managed if it is identified and addressed in a timely manner. It can be serious if symptoms progress and affect a child's ability to breathe. Reference the "When to call the Doctor" section of  this parent resource for some warning signs of a serious case of croup.

If you have any other questions or concerns regarding your child's health, contact your pediatrician for professional guidance and information.