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Croup: Basics, symptoms and treatment

What is croup?

Croup is a fairly common respiratory condition in children usually caused by a viral infection or allergic reaction.

Croup affects the windpipe (trachea), the bronchi (airways to the lungs), and the larynx (voice box).

A child with croup will have a cough that sounds like a dog barking, as well as making a rasping noise called stridor as they breathe in.

Around 3% of children get croup each year, usually during autumn and winter.

Children aged from 6 months to 3 years old are most likely to get croup, but older children can be affected.

A GP will usually diagnose croup from the child's symptoms and recommend treatment at home. However, if the child is having trouble breathing, emergency hospital treatment may be needed.

Could my child have croup?

If your child has a cough that sounds similar to a dog or seal barking and there is a rasping noise as he or she breathes in, chances are your child could have croup. In addition to the cough, your child may also have a hoarse voice and have laboured breathing.

Croup is most common in autumn and winter, and when a child is between 6 months and 3 years old. However, older children up to 15 years old sometimes get croup too.

Croup is a common respiratory condition in children caused by either a viral infection or allergy. It affects the windpipe, larynx (voice box) and airways to the lungs, which can become inflamed or filled with mucus. When it is caused by a viral infection, croup will develop over several days, but spasmodic croup in which there are repeated short episodes of croup usually indicates an allergy.

When caused by infection initial symptoms are the same as those of a cold and include a sore throat, runny nose, 'usual' cough and fever. After a day or two specific symptoms of croup include:

  • Bark-like cough
  • Hoarse or croaky voice
  • Harsh rasping sound (stridor) when breathing in (but not when breathing out); it can be a high-pitched whistling sound
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing

Your GP can make a diagnosis of croup based on the symptoms.

Breathing problems with croup

The child may have trouble breathing because the tissue around the larynx is inflamed, constricting the windpipe, and because the bronchial passages are blocked with mucus. The sound of air being forced through the narrowed airways may produce a hollow, raspy noise (stridor) with each inhaled breath. However, there tends to be no similar sound with exhalation.

Croup usually lasts for five or six days and is highly contagious to other children who have not had the illness. It usually affects children between the ages of six months and three years, whose small windpipes and bronchial passages are most vulnerable to blockage. Children over six can get croup, though it is unusual. It is rare in babies under six months.

Many cases are mild and can be managed at home. It is important not to check your child's throat by inserting an object. This can trigger spasm in the airway. In severe cases, or in the case of epiglottitis - an unrelated bacterial infection of the epiglottis (the tissue flap that covers the trachea when swallowing), the symptoms of which can sometimes mimic croup in early stages - your child may need to be admitted to hospital so seek medical advice.

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