A young boy coughs into his hand while holding his chest.
Is it a common cold, or something more? Listening closely to your child’s cough can help you decide if it’s time to seek a doctor. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

There it goes again. And again. And again.

It’s the sound that grates your nerves, although not as much as it simply tears at your heartstrings.

It’s your child’s coughing—and it may be trying to tell you something.

But only if you listen carefully.

Daniel McGee, MD, pediatric hospitalist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, shares five telltale cough sounds that offer clues to what may be ailing your child.

The telltale sounds:


It may be croup, a viral illness that causes swelling and inflammation of the vocal cords. The cough sounds like a bark and it may also be accompanied by stridor—a harsh, high-pitched wheeze—when your child breathes in.


It may be pertussis. Commonly known as whooping cough, pertussis is a contagious respiratory illness that can cause coughing fits in which children are forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound as they gasp for breath.


A repetitive cough with short, staccato sounds is a characteristic sign of the lung infection chlamydial pneumonia, especially in infants.


A persistent, dry cough may be a symptom of asthma, a disease affecting the lungs.


The common cold often produces a wet, productive-sounding cough with mucus or phlegm behind it.

Although it may go against your parental instincts, Dr. McGee advises caregivers to resist the temptation to medicate children with a cough suppressant. Doing so, he warns, may do more harm than good in most cases.

But parents should also know when enough is enough.

“If your child has had a persistent cough for a week or more, don’t just write it off as the common cold,” Dr. McGee said. “Make an appointment with a pediatrician to determine if something else is going on.”

Seek immediate medical help if your child appears ill and is working hard to breathe, he said.