This is how to decode your child’s cough

Emmy Samtani
Emmy Samtani
Emmy is the founder of Kiindred and mother to 3 little ones. Over the last 4 years, she has worked with some of the most credible experts in the parenting space and is a keen contributor on all things parenthood.
Created on May 15, 2024 · 6 mins read

Coughs are a complicated symptom. They can be chesty or scratchy, crackly or crisp, and point to different issues altogether. Is it a cold? Bronchitis? Pneumonia? All three (is that even possible)?

Trying to decipher which cough your kid has, and if it’s a symptom of something bigger, can send you into a dizzying worry spiral.

And you have endless time for those thoughts since that coughing has kept you up all night. That’s how the whole family starts to unravel, one cough at a time. 

So if you don’t yet have the ear for cough-decoding, we’re giving you the words and the wisdom to pin those chesty challengers down. 

The two main types of cough

Starting at the top, there are two high-level types of cough you can start distinguishing by. 

Dry (unproductive): Think of a tickle in your throat that might trigger your cough reflex and a pretty eye-watering coughing fit. A dry cough usually happens when there’s inflammation or irritation in the respiratory tract, but there’s not enough mucus to cough up. It can feel scratchy and rough in the throat and might have some soreness. 

Wet (productive): Also referred to as a chesty cough, this cough releases mucus (or phlegm). These may not sound too delicate, but at least they get you somewhere – hence being called ‘productive.’ Wet coughs have a moist or bubbling sound, and feel like something lodged in the airway that the coughing can push out. 

These two coughs have different causes and treatment methods; meaning they are not one and the same. 

Meet the dry cough

Scratchy, and sore hacking – dry coughs can be the most frustrating of the two types. 

Especially as a parent watching your little one rasp and wheeze with no end in sight. 

We need to take note of our child’s other symptoms for a holistic insight into what might be happening behind their cough. Every cough is a signal of something bigger happening. 

Dry coughs often trail behind after a cold or flu, as the final stage of a sickness or infection. This is often because of post-nasal drip, where some of the mucus from their nose and sinuses could drip into their throat. This can lead to a sore or irritated throat, and eventually, inflammation. A dry cough can soon follow. 

They’re also classic to hay fever; sensitivity to dust, animal hair, or pollen might create a dry, itchy, persistent cough.

Meet the wet cough

Wet coughs are the least glamorous, but they’re called “productive” for a reason. 

Unlike dry coughs, there won’t be tickling or irritation in your child’s throat. Instead, you’ll hear a rattling in their chest and probably see some mucus. The mucus can range from clear to white and yellow to green.

Typically, a wet cough (especially an acute wet cough) accompanies a cold or respiratory infection. Some coughs are a symptom of more serious conditions (like pneumonia or bronchitis), which is why it is always best to seek the advice of a health professional. 


Finding relief

Dry coughs
Dry, hacking coughs are sore. Since they often stem from irritation and itchiness in your throat, you want to opt for soothing and nourishing. 

At home, you can focus on keeping your little one hydrated with plenty of water and giving them one to two teaspoons of honey half an hour before bedtime (note: babies under 12 months shouldn’t be given honey). Soups and hot teas can also relieve scratchy throats. 

If you suspect hay fever to be the cause, talk to your health professional as antihistamines or decongestants can be recommended to soften a dry cough.

Wet coughs
For the chesty, phlegmy coughs, you want to loosen the mucus in your child’s chest. If your child is a teensy bit older, an effective cough medicine is where you want to look.

Prospan for Children* is our Kiindred team’s favourite chesty cough relief, it contains a naturally derived ivy leaf extract to help take your cough away. It’s a clinically proven* cough syrup that uses a naturally sourced active ingredient – ivy leaf – to soothe coughed-out airways, clear mucus, and relieve congestion. The fact that it’s non-drowsy, sugar-free, and tastes good enough for kids to gulp it down tantrum-free is just another box ticked. 

We’re not the only ones who swear by it; Prospan is Australia’s top selling herbal cough remedy, relieving cough systems twice faster than when left untreated.**

It’s perfect for getting on top of chesty coughs quickly, but gently. Prospan for Children is safe to use for kids above the age of two.

When to get help

As we said, coughs (no matter what shape or sound they come in) are a symptom of something else happening with your child. 

Most likely, they’ll show other signs of feeling unwell packaged in with their cough. If these symptoms last longer than a few days, or you have reason for concern, it’s always best practice to see their GP. 

A cough that lasts several weeks may warrant a visit to a pediatrician to establish what’s making it persist. 

Seek immediate medical help if: 

  • Your child is having difficulty breathing
  • Their breathing becomes rapid or irregular
  • Your child’s breathing is noisy when they are not crying
  • Their skin turns blue or they become very pale
  • They seem unusually tired
  • They have a temperature over 37°C
  • They refuse food or drink
  • Your child suddenly starts to cough and has not been unwell – this may indicate that they are choking. Choking requires immediate emergency treatment.

Wrapping it up

Our children’s coughs can seem completely evasive. Even just reading this article, your mind might be mapping out a flowchart to pin down what their combination of symptoms, duration, and severity points to. 

The best advice we can give a puzzled parent? Record the cough, write down when it happens (and how often), and touch base with your GP to clear your mind and your child’s cough. 

*Lang, C et al. Planta Medica. 2015;81(12/13):968-74. Funded by Engelhard Arzneimittel GmbH & Co. KG. 

 **Prospan is clinically proven to relieve a chesty cough in 7 days vs 14 days untreated. Schaefer A, et al., Pharmazie 2016;71(9):504-509.  

Always read the label and follow the directions for use. Not to be used in children under 2 without medical advice. 


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