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Decoding Coughs

Can you tell if your child's "uh-umph" signals a mere reflex, a minor illness  -- or a major health concern? Learn the language of coughs by looking at the other symptoms, says Miriam Bar-on, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Loyola University School of Medicine, in Chicago. For instance, when a cough comes with a runny nose, sore throat, or low fever, your child probably has a cold.

When a Cough: Sounds like a barking dog, is accompanied by labored breathing and a low-grade fever, and wakes your child at night

It could be: Croup, a common infection that inflames the upper part of the trachea (windpipe)

What to do: Take your child into a steamy bathroom or out into the cool night air. Either one will help relieve upper-airway inflammation. If breathing doesn't improve, call your pediatrician; if it worsens, go to the ER. To ease future attacks, try a cool-mist humidifier.

When a Cough: Is accompanied by a high fever, achy muscles, and decreased appetite

It could be: Flu, caused by a contagious virus that can be easily spread through casual contact, especially sneezing and coughing

What to do: Treat with fluids and rest and give acetaminophen to lower fever and relieve achiness. If symptoms don't improve in a few days, call the pediatrician.

When a Cough: Is persistent or occurs with flulike symptoms as well as difficult or rapid breathing, fever, or chest pains

It could be: Pneumonia, an infection in the lung

What to do: Call the pediatrician. Home treatment, under medical supervision, includes acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring down fever, fluids, and clapping on the chest and back to loosen secretions and help lungs reexpand. If symptoms get worse, call the doctor immediately, as your child may need medication, such as antibiotics.

When a Cough: Is persistent, follows a cold that lasts more than ten days, sounds wet, and is accompanied by sour breath and thick green or yellow nasal mucus

It could be: Sinusitis, an inflammation and infection of the mucous membrane that lines the sinuses

What to do: Consult your doctor. Antibiotics may be needed to treat the bacterial infection and to prevent possible complications.

When a Cough: Is hard and persistent and follows a cold or sniffles (may also sound wheezy, and breathing may be quick and labored)

It could be: Bronchiolitis, a common illness that causes inflammation of the bronchioles  -- the small airways of the lungs

What to do: See your doctor. She may suggest saline nose drops and using a bulb syringe to help clear out your child's nose. Symptoms will typically clear up within a week; there is rarely a need for medication.

When a Cough: Is often worse at night or in cold weather, occurs while child exercises, or includes wheezing or shortness of breath

It could be: Asthma, an inflammation of the airways (triggers can be a cold, an allergy, pet dander, or such irritants as cigarette smoke)

What to do: See the pediatrician. She'll provide proper diagnosis and treatment options, including medications to prevent attacks.

When a Cough: Is spasmodic and sounds sharp and high-pitched, with a slight whoop at the end (infants may not "whoop")

It could be: Whooping cough, a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that can cause serious breathing problems if it goes untreated

What to do: Call the pediatrician. Your child may need antibiotics.