Top 3 Causes of Cough in Children

It’s time to stop the cough:  Learn the top 3 causes of cough in children!

Who cares about the top 3 causes of cough?

Well, are you tired of hearing your child cough? Tired of taking them to the doctor only to have them say “it’s just a ____” and to wait a little longer… and longer… and longer?  Are you now frustrated that nobody seems to know how to treat your child’s cough?

It’s time to take matters into your own hands and help your kid’s cough get the right diagnosis!  It’s time for your son/daughter to finally feel better!

learn cause of cough child or cause of cough kid
Do you know the top 3 causes of cough in children?


How to stop your child’s cough:  Learn the top 3 causes of cough in children


Note:  This is a long post.  A great post, but a long post.  It has one goal:  to help fix your child’s cough.


But I know that you are busy and may not have time to read the entire article about the top 3 causes of cough in children right now.

If you want to help your kid’s cough right away (or want to save this for later) then click here to download the article.

Or, if you want it to be easier:

Take the “what is the most likely cause of my child’s cough” Quiz


Before you read about the 3 most common causes of cough in children, I want to share a story about Caden:

About a year ago, I saw someone who left a lasting impression on me.  I’ll try to do her story justice.

Her name was Jennifer and she came to my office and was almost in tears with guilt about her son, Caden.

Caden was a 6 year old who had started school earlier that year.  After about half the school year, Jennifer was picking up her son one day and noticed her kid had a cough. She asked the teacher if there was a cough going around in the other children or a sickness and the teacher said, in a somewhat confused tone, “no, there’s no sickness. That’s just his normal cough. That’s why all the kids call him Coughing Caden.”

Jennifer was heartbroken. Apparently, the other kids were all making fun of her son and calling him Coughing Caden for a cough she didn’t know about!

Later that night, she was talking to her friends and family and they all just knew he was the kid who coughed. It was, apparently, something that had happened long enough that everyone had just blocked it out as a “normal” part of Caden – the child with a cough!  By her estimate, it had been going on for at least 2 years before I had seen him!


If this story sounds similar to you, you are not alone.  I probably see at least one coughing child a week that has not been diagnosed properly.

But I can reassure you that for your child, just like with Caden, the answer is most likely one of these the top 3 causes of cough in children.



First, describe your child’s cough

Before anything else, a good medical provider should take a detailed history of your kid’s cough. Cough is one of those symptoms where no single description is the “key” to diagnosis.  The history and specifics of your child’s cough guides me toward a plan, but it is usually history PLUS a test or medication response that makes the full diagnosis.

These are the typical questions I would ask you regarding cough in children

  1. How long has your child had the cough?
  2. Does your kid’s cough produce mucous?
    • What is the color and has it changed?
    • Did it always make mucous or did that change?
    • Does coughing mucous make your child feel better or about the same?
  3. When is your child’s cough the worst?
    • First thing in the morning/when they wakes up?
    • When they are laying down at night?
    • Does your kid’s cough wake them up in the middle of the night?
    • Is your child’s cough worse after eating or eating large meals?
    • Does exercise or exertion a cause of cough?
  4. If your child is really really happy, do they “laugh laugh laugh” or “laugh laugh laugh cough cough cough?”
  5. If you kid is really upset, do they “yell yell yell” or “yell yell yell cough cough cough?”
  6. Does your child have a stuffy nose, runny nose, itchy or sneezy nose?
  7. Do they have a history of seasonal or year-round allergies?
  8. Do they have a history of asthma or a family history of asthma?
  9. Does your child get heartburn or stomach pain after eating?
  10. Do they wake up with a sour taste in the back of their throat?
  11. Does your child have a history of acid reflux, gastritis, GERD, or chronic reflux?
  12. Finally, when your child coughs, what have you been giving them / doing for your kid’s cough and has it helped?


These are pretty much my entire “cause of cough in children” questions.

If any of questions are “yes answers” then I will ask more questions to help fine tune my suspected cause of cough in you child.

Note for Medical Providers:

If you are reading this, PLEASE feel free to copy and use these questions in your clinic and feel free to ask me to expand on why I ask these.  Or, if you want, you can read about it through my medical provider education site.

I will help you and your patients get to the right answer faster!


As an update for our kid, Coughing Caden:

Caden had cough intermittently through the day, worse at night and with exercise and his cough would wake him up regularly from sleep at night… but had been going on long enough that he would just “push through” the daytime symptoms and would just fall back asleep at night.



The MOST COMMON cause of cough in children: upper respiratory causes!

Child cough from allergies or cold
TOP cause of cough in children is a cold or allergies

The #1 cause of cough in children is due to either COLDS/FLUs OR ALLERGY symptoms.

In both of these cases, your child is producing an increase in mucous is response to either the infection or the allergen/irritant.  This causes post-nasal and drainage down their throat, and it is this drainage that ACTUALLY the cause of you child’s cough!

Colds/upper respiratory infections and allergies are the most common cause of cough in children!


Child Cough due to colds, flus, or upper respiratory infections

  • Typically, your kid’s cough lasts as long as a cold.
  • The cough usually starts all of a sudden and usually lasts 7-10 day in most people.
  • Your child’s cough usually happens throughout the day and may be worse when they first lay down at night (think of the sinuses as cups that collect mucous all day and then when you lay down you “tip” the cup on its side).
  • Finally, your kid’s cough might or might not wake you up at night.  However, it will almost ALWAYS wake you… or a sleeping baby… up.


Child Cough due to allergy symptoms

I talked in a prior post that not all allergy symptoms are truly allergic rhinitis.  But regardless of the cause, the cause of cough in children from allergy symptoms  is also from the production of mucous in the nose and sinus.  Just like in colds/flus!

  • For allergic rhinitis, your child’s cough will start when pollen counts start to rise.
  • For irritant rhinitis, your kid’s cough will  start after exposure to an irritant (such as strong smells, odors, perfumes, cigarette smoke, etc).
  • Allergic cough in children can happen throughout the day but tends to be worse when laying down at night.
  • There is often nose itching or eye symptoms/eye itching associated with allergy symptoms (but not always).



The SECOND most common cause of cough in children: cough variant asthma!


If there were one point in this entire article that you should know about, it’s that there is a form of asthma without “typical” asthma symptoms that presents only as a cough!

Asthma second cause cough child
Second cause of cough in children is asthma


The causes of asthma were covered in a prior article, but the asthma cause of cough in children could either be the muscles of the airways or mucous production.

Probably once a week, I have a someone come in with months-to-years of a “persistent cough” that is actually asthma!


Child Cough due to cough-variant asthma

    • Your child’s cough often happens at night and might wake them up from sleep.
    • Their cough may sometimes happen after exercise or exertion or on cold air days.
    • Strong emotions, such as laughing or yelling, may turn into coughing fits.
    • Typical asthma symptoms of wheezing or shortness of breath might be present but are usually absent.

Some kid’s cough has gone on so long that they don’t even know what breathing normally or “taking a full breath” actually feels like! Getting them the right diagnosis will stop their cough and treatment will change their lives COMPLETELY!



The THIRD most common cause of cough in children: acid reflux / GERD

When we think about acid reflux (GERD), we often think of the person eating a spicy bowl of chili and then breathing fire while hitting their chest (that is certainly what the internet thinks GERD/acid reflux looks like)!  But surprisingly, that is not how most people with acid reflux present! Especially children.

acid reflux cause cough kid
Third cause of cough in children is acid reflux

Your child’s cough may be the only symptom of acid reflux! And acid reflux (GERD) IS the THIRD MOST COMMON cause of cough!

Cough, and only cough, is a very common symptom of acid reflux and is often the only clue you have for this diagnosis.

Child Cough due to acid reflux/GERD

  • Your kid’s cough may happen when laying down and often worse first thing in the morning
  • Your child’s cough may happen after large meals
  • They may have a sour taste in their mouth in the morning or bad breath
  • Coughing due to acid reflux/GERD is sometimes associated with being husky or overweight (but not always)!
  • An acid reflux/GERD cause of cough can happen with exercise, but usually not with strong emotion.


At this point, you are probably overwhelmed (and if you need to take a break, you can download this post and read it later).


Still not sure the cause of your child’s cough?

I have made an interactive quiz which should help get you to the most likely cause. It takes about 5 minutes and gives you very good information that you can take to your primary care provider to start helping your child feel better.

Take the “what is the most likely cause of my child’s cough” Quiz


Putting it all together:  the 3 most common causes of cough in children

Hopefully, you have found one of the top 3 most common causes of cough in children sounded like your child’s cough.

If there was one category that sounded like your kid’s cough, then that is great news!  Your next step is:

  1. Take this information (or print this article) and take it to your primary care provider.
    • Talk to them about the cause of cough for your child
    • They can help with the next step to fix your child’s cough
  2. If needed, they can refer you to an allergist or to the next appropriate step
  3. You can always ask me for more personalized advice and I will happily help


Wait… what about treatment?

This is the EXACT question to be asking.  I am working on a second post specifically geared toward the treatmnt of the top 3 causes of cough in a children.  If you want, you can email me and I will make it a priority (and will send it to you once it gets published).


Before you go… I need your help!

There are SO MANY kids with cough that can be helped by this post… and it honestly upsets me that so many people are having to just “deal with the cough.”

So today, I want your help with the following:

  1. If you know someone with kids that cough, please send them this article.
    • The top 3 causes of cough in children will help most of them feel better
    • The treatments are all very easy and very effective!
  2. If not, it is likely someone in your friends list is dealing with this.  Why?  When we can help.
    1. Please SHARE this on facebook.
    2. And ask your friends to share this as well.
    3. Cough is so common in children… and we can help so many children if we work together!

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  • Dr. Webber,

    You article is a relief to me. My 3.5 yrs old daughter is going through same cough problems as expressed above. As a parent we are not able to find a solution for it. Our pediatrician has recommended some expectorant syrup which will help my daughter expect mucus. We do not know the cause of formation of such mucus, from your article it sounds like allergy. This problem started around six months back after she fell ill due to viral fever and cough. I wont say that the cough is increasing, however it unstable and not getting cured. Is there a way to get rid of such cough?

    • There is absolutely a way to get rid of the cough. Its all about finding the cause and fixing it. If you haven’t already, take this quiz for the cause of your child’s cough and I’ll do my best to help once I get the results.

  • My child coughs a bit every morning and when he spits out the mucous he is fine. He is 6 years old boy. I m noticing his cough since 4 years. He has developed allergic rhinitis symptoms since a year and have noticed that the episode of his llergic bronchitis ahve also increased. He is now own naturopathy and his bronchitis and sneezing are almost gone. But he still coughs every morning. He has to struggle every morning.

    • Morning cough is a difficult one, but as a starting point think of either an allergy/sinus cause or possibly reflux.

      In the case of allergies/sinus, think of the sinuses as cups which fill up during the day and then, when you lay down at night, you tip the cup on the side and all the mucus drains out. This can lead to AM mucus. In this case, increasing allergy treatment will likely help.

      However, acid is also a possible cause. Many people think of acid as a “eat chili then breathe fire” type of symptom. And this does happen. But cough can be the only symptom of acid as well. Particularly AM cough. Again, as you lay down acid from the stomach can go up the esophagus and this causes irritation and cough in the morning. In this case, adding acid treatment should help.

      I would consider starting here either with your naturopath or primary care physician. Discuss the options and then go for it. The good news is that cough can often be fixed with one of these two treatment pathways.

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