Croup in kids and babies

It’s the middle of the night and you wake up to the sound of a strange noise… what IS that. You realize it is coming from your kid’s room. It’s a barky sound, almost seal-like… it’s croup. Croup in babies and young kids can be frightening.  But what is it?

Croup is a virus. It hits kids and babies in the middle of the night. It’s scary. We panic. The kids panic. It’s natural to feel this way. 

Croup is an infection and causes inflammation of the larynx and trachea (aka the “voicebox” and “windpipe”). It can feel and seem like your child can’t breathe. Take a deep breath mama or papa, you can often treat the symptoms to make your baby feel more comfortable right at home. 

What to do when your kid has croup

First take a look at your child. Are they blue or lips look an off color? Do they struggle to breathe and make a weird sound like they are breathing in through a tiny straw? Are they limp in your arms? If your kid is drooling and unable to swallow, or seems to be reaching their head up for air or suddenly looks very ill, call 911 immediately. 

If your child is coughing, and it sounds like a seal or a barky sound, two things can help:

  1. Steam from running a hot shower
  2. Cold air vapors from outside (if it’s cold out) or from the freezer

First, head to the shower. Turn the shower on and let the bathroom fill with steam. Don’t turn that fan on. We need the steam to stay put! If you prefer to get into the shower with your little one, just keep the temp comfortable. We wouldn’t want to add burn to the list of problems! If you prefer to sit on the bathroom floor then turn that water up and let the steam work its magic. 

Your child’s cry and voice are likely hoarse sounding. Try to keep them calm. Offer them a drink and comfort. Your kid is scared and panicked as they don’t understand why they are so uncomfortable. Try as hard as you can to limit crying as the more upset they are, the worse the cough and breathing gets. 

Next you will need to wrap your baby or young child up in a blanket. Once they are all wrapped up… take them out into the cold night air. It must be chilly out for this to work. If it’s warm out, head to your freezer and let your little one breathe in the blast of cold freezer air for 5 min or so. This may all sound crazy, but the combination of cold air and steam will help resolve the symptoms of croup! 

On top of the cough, your kid more often than not will also have a fever. Motrin works best as long as the child is over 6 months old. Follow the instructions on dosing, call your doctor’s nurse line, or log into nurse-1-1 and we can advise you on weight- based appropriate dosing for your baby or young child. Motrin will help reduce fever, and will decrease inflammation, and help calm your kiddo down. To learn more about fever in kids, check out some of our other articles.

You should soon start to have a calmer child who can breathe easier and have less of that constant barking cough. They should calm down and become less panicked. Hopefully you will all get a few hours of sleep now!

When to go to the ER for croup in babies and kids

If you have done the cold air blast and steamed up the bathroom and your child is still appearing to be having the barky cough combined with a squeaking noise when breathing in, then it’s time to get checked out. That squeak when breathing in is called stridor and means they are having difficulty getting air into their lungs. It’s likely the middle of the night and you will need to go to the ER. Here is a great video of stridor. This type of breathing needs to be seen right away! 

If your local urgent care is open (and your pediatrician isn’t), that is also a great option. Your child may need a steroid to help calm things down and open up their airways.

How long will croup last in children

Croup is a virus and will go away on its own. Usually nights 2-3 are the worst so get some rest while you can! Your little one may be up again tomorrow. Following the 3-4 nights of waking with the hoarse cough, your child will likely develop a runny nose and cold symptoms. These should resolve after 7 days or so. If your child develops a fever at the end of the illness or fever comes and goes, get them checked out by your pediatrician. 

If the cough lingers more than 5 days or your kid exhibits increased work with breathing or difficulty breathing, then get them checked right away. Any time your child looks like they are working hard to breathe, it’s important to get them checked out. Signs they are having trouble are heavy breathing, fast shallow breathing, ribs popping out with each breath (retractions), grunting, nose flaring, or any color changes are all concerning symptoms. 

Is croup contagious for babies and young kids?

 Croup is contagious, and is most contagious when your child has a fever and first has the cough. The viral load will decrease over time but it’s a good idea to avoid sharing drinks, kissing and make sure to continue with good hand washing. The younger the child, usually the more severe the symptoms, as their airways (“windpipes”) are smaller. 

As children get older, they may have a hoarse voice and mild cough, same goes for adults. It’s always a good idea to keep other kids away. Keep babies and young kids home from daycare, and keep older kids home from school until they are fever free for 24 hours. 

As always feel free to check in with our nurses at Nurse-1-1 who can help guide you through croup as it is a very common illness in childhood. Now go take a nap and get ready for night two!

Feel free to message us with any concerns!

Nurse-1-1 Health Center is written by nurses in a straight to the point type of way to provide basic health information. We get a lot of people like you searching online for answers to health concerns or looking for a hotline to ask a nurse a few questions. Questions like, I have been suffering from headache and fatigue for a while. Should I be worried? What is the the difference between a common cold vs flu? Is fever in kids bad? Well we can help. We put some info here for you to find while searching through all that other dry, scary medical information online. Stop that. Read our posts, or chat with us. This is not medical advice or a replacement for medical care, but see what we have to say with our free health information, and hopefully it will stop you from scaring yourself any more than you already have. We can help.