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Croup Cough: What Does It Sound Like & How Do You Treat It?

The croup cough has a distinct barking sound alongside various other croup symptoms. Learn more about croup cough and when to seek medical attention.

What is Croup?


Croup is a respiratory condition that primarily affects the windpipe (trachea), the airways to the lungs (bronchi), and the voice box (larynx). This area is called the laryngotracheobronchial tree.

These areas become inflamed and swollen, which narrows the airways and leads to the distinctive symptoms associated with the condition. Inflammation is typically caused by a viral infection, such as a common cold, the flu, RSV, and COVID-19.

Croup spreads similarly to a cold or flu virus — through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Direct contact with these droplets or touching surfaces contaminated with the virus can lead to infection. This is why it’s crucial to practice good hygiene, like frequent handwashing, especially during the colder months when croup is more prevalent.

Recognizing the Cough Associated With Croup


You’ll often hear the croup cough described as a “barking” cough, reminiscent of the sound a seal makes. Other descriptions of the cough include “deep” and “brassy.” This unique sound is a result of swelling around the vocal cords, which narrows the airway and produces the distinctive noise.

With croup, it’s not a constant cough but tends to come in short bursts, especially when the person is upset or crying. The cough is typically more pronounced during the night, leading to disturbed sleep for the affected person and those around them. If you’ve ever heard a child with a barking cough in the middle of the night, it’s a sound that’s hard to forget.

Besides the distinguishing cough, the Mayo Clinic defines other symptoms of croup as a fever, a raspy voice, and a high-pitched or squeaking noise when the patient breathes in, called stridor. Again, the symptoms of croup typically increase as the day goes on, being the most prevalent at night.

Croup Cough in Adults vs. Kids


While croup is most commonly associated with children, especially those under the age of 5, adults can also get it. Croup cough in adults is generally less severe than in children because adults have large windpipes. But a study by the Medical College of Wisconsin revealed that croup in adults can become very serious because the windpipe becomes exceptionally swollen if left untreated for a while. The study shows that most adults with croup had more extended hospital stays than children with croup, and 87% of those adult hospitalized cases required an ICU stay.

Other symptoms of croup in adults include common cold symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, fatigue, and a low-grade fever.

Distinguishing Croup from Other Illnesses


So, how do you know it’s croup? The barking nature of the croup cough is the most telling sign. It’s best to see a medical provider to receive a definitive diagnosis as soon as possible. They can assess the symptoms, listen to the cough, and provide guidance on the best course of action.

Treatment Options


If the case of croup isn’t severe, you can follow some home remedies to receive some relief. That includes breathing in cool air. This can help reduce the swelling in the airway. If your child has croup, you might find relief by taking them outside for a few minutes, especially during the cooler evening hours. Alternatively, using a cool-mist humidifier in the room can also be beneficial. Drinking plenty of fluids can help soothe the throat and prevent dehydration. Warm (not hot) liquids can be particularly comforting.

Medical experts with say cough suppressants are ineffective in curbing one’s painful cough with a croup infection. Since croup is most often viral, antibiotics don’t help combat the virus.

If you seek medical help at a doctor’s office or urgent care, you might receive a prescription for a steroid or nebulized epinephrine. Doctors might prescribe oral steroids to reduce airway inflammation in more severe cases. This treatment is especially common if there is significant stridor or difficulty in breathing. A doctor might administer nebulized epinephrine in a hospital setting for severe croup that’s causing substantial breathing difficulties. This medication can quickly reduce airway swelling.

When to See a Doctor for Croup


Recognizing the signs of croup is essential, but understanding when it’s time to seek medical attention is equally crucial. While many cases of croup are mild and can be managed at home, there are instances where professional medical intervention is necessary.

  1. Difficulty Breathing: If you or your child struggles to breathe or shows signs of respiratory distress, it’s imperative to see a doctor immediately. Look for flaring nostrils, rapid breathing, or a bluish tint to the lips or face.
  2. Persistent Fever: A mild fever can accompany croup, but if it’s high or prolonged, it’s a sign that you should consult with a healthcare professional.
  3. Dehydration: If the individual with croup is not drinking enough fluids or showing signs of dehydration, such as dark yellow urine, dry lips, or sunken eyes, it’s time to seek medical advice.
  4. Worsening Symptoms: If the cough or other symptoms seem to be getting worse instead of better after a few days, it’s a clear indication that you should see a doctor.
  5. Stridor at Rest: Stridor, or a high-pitched wheezing sound when breathing, is common with croup. However, if this noise occurs even when the individual is calm or resting, it’s a sign of severe croup and requires immediate medical attention.

If you’re debating visiting an ER vs. urgent care to seek help, consider urgent care. While croup is extremely uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening as long as you can still breathe. To save yourself from a hefty hospital bill, visit a local urgent care, such as American Family Care (AFC).

Seek Relief at AFC


AFC is ready to help you or your child find some relief from croup cough. Our early morning, late evening, and weekend clinic hours make it easy to fit a visit into your schedule — no need to stress about making an appointment beforehand. Just walk right in, and we can begin helping you or your child find some relief. Start by finding a location near you.


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