Last updated on Feb 24th, 2021 at 05:33 pm

A cough is a symptom, not a disease in itself, and so is associated with various possible causes, not all of which are serious. Here, Sister Lilian identifies different types of coughs and how best to treat them. Coughs often follow or are part of persistent mucus discharges from the airway membranes and this can usually be treated with quick enough with lifestyle and dietary changes.

There are 5 different types of coughs:

1. Loose, productive cough

This is when you can hear mucus in the airways when your baby breathes, or you can see it because your baby has a runny nose or coughs or vomits up mucus. This mucus will mostly be profuse and although any colour is possible, it is not so thick or sticky that it cannot be expelled.

2. Dry or non-productive cough

No mucus or very little of it is expelled from the airways with a dry cough and so your baby does not cough it up. There is seldom a freely running nose, nor does one readily hear it in the airways as your baby breathes, although his voice might be very nasal and altered from normal.

3. Tight cough

This is related to a dry cough, although productive mucus is possible. A tight cough is recognised by the child’s chest caving in during the coughing episode, which sounds painful and is often accompanied by dry retching and debilitating tiredness.

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4. Irritation cough

This cough is mostly due to a postnasal drip and originates from a constant clearing of the throat.

5. Spasmodic cough

A cough that comes in spasms and then is not present for quite a time can be called spasmodic. There will mostly be a chest infection or lower airway condition like croup or bronchitis, and coughing seems painful.

Also see: Signs and symptoms of bronchitis.

7 causes of coughing

Coughing is either due to an irritation of the airways or an attempt to expel something from the throat or chest. There are a number of possibilities and once again, not all are mutually exclusive.

1. Excess mucus

Excess mucus causes an irritation in your baby’s throat or chest, triggering a cough response. Mucus is produced by the membrane lining of the airways and a little is always present to keep the membranes moist. Problems arise if excess mucus is made by the body to try and remove an irritant or allergenic substance, or infection occurs as mucus is a good medium for bacterial and viral growth. Apart from this, the early years of life are generally more mucusy, with more colds and runny noses than later.

2. Foods linked to coughing

Dairy and grain products are the most likely dietary triggers of coughs. Foods with preservatives, colourants and flavour enhancers can also cause excess mucus and a cough reaction.

3. Allergies

Allergies to any substance ingested orally (as described above) or inhaled into the airways (like pollen) may cause a cough. Dust mites and pets are also possible causes of an allergic cough.

4. Smoking

Smoking in your child’s environment is a common cause of a chronic cough. Smoking outside the house helps, al-though it is not an absolute cure, as the nicotine is in the respiratory system of the smoker and exhaled over the child in close contact. Quitting is the only option that will really help.

Babies born to smokers will be far morelikely to have respiratory problems andbe more prone to allergies generally.

5. Respiratory infections and diseases

Conditions like bronchitis, bronchiolitis, croup, flu, asthma and whooping cough are all characterised by persistent coughing, and require specific treatmentas well as general lifestyle and dietary adjustments.

6. Climate

Dry, cold areas or seasons make some babies more prone to coughing, and humid climates affect others. For chronic coughing, a move might be required if self-help measures do not sufficiently improve the cough.

7. Day care

Young children and babies in crèches are more prone to coughs and if the problem is chronic, it is worthwhile choosing childcare where fewer children are looked after by the caregiver, or your baby is cared for at home by a trusted, trained nanny.

Treating a cough

During a bout of coughing, approach your child calmly, comfort him but do not show anxiety, preferably prop him up to ease breathing and ensure good ventilation. Try these tips according to what your child’s symptoms are:

  • Increase fresh fruit and vegetables in his diet and reduce mucus-producing foods such as dairy and grain products, sweet and savoury treats and foods with additives.
  • Run a humidifier at night, with a little eucalyptus oil added. This helps disinfect and soothe dry, inflamed membranes. Clean and dry the humidifier after each use.
  • A few drops of eucalyptus oil under the hot water tap when running your baby’s bath may also help open his airways for the night.
  • Homeopathic remedies for coughing are very helpful for a wide range of coughs, including croup, loose productive- or dry cough and wheezing or tight coughs, but remember that asthma needs professional care.
  • If stress seems to be the cause of an asthmatic cough, try and spend more time with your little one and teach him ways to relax, due to the frequent emotional triggers associated with asthma. Outings into nature are a good and healthy way of doing this.
  • If allergies to environmental factors trigger an attack, you will have to try and exclude them.
  • Steam treat with a balsam containing benzoin – add a capful to a basin of boiling water, drape a towel over your child’s head and encourage him to inhale these vapours, but take care to avoid burning. This helps for a tight, dry cough as well as in most cases of croup and persistent coughing.
  • In acute attacks of croup at night, close windows and doors and boil a kettle (which does not automatically switch off) to make your baby’s breathing easier.
  • Apply a layer of cold ointment to your baby’s chest and throat, or onto a vest if the skin reacts with a rash, to help relieve a tight- or croup-like cough at night.
  • For whooping cough, give a homeopathic remedy to relieve the characteristic dry cough.
  • Cut an onion into rings. Cover with pure honey and leave for four hours. Remove the rings. Give one teaspoon of the remaining frothy liquid three times a day for coughing from postnasal drip.
  • To relieve nasal congestion, no matter the type of mucus, use a homeopathic nasal spray.
  • Clear, burning mucus with streaming, red eyes – give the homeopathic remedy allium cepa or the tissue salt ferrum phos.
  • If your baby has yellow-green discharge with a blocked nose, give him the homeopathic remedy, pulsatilla.

‘Mucus Manager’

A common allergy, sensitivity or intolerance manifestation is excess mucus production, which is an excellent medium for growth of organisms that then lead to disease. Try these remedies:

  • Clear, frothy, profuse watery mucus – give the tissue salt remedy nat mur
  • Thick, white-to-grey sluggish mucus –give the tissue salt remedy kali mur
  • Yellow, sticky, slimy, elastic mucus – give the tissue salt remedy kali sulph
  • Green, lumpy mucus – give the tissue salt remedy calc sulph.

When to call the doctor

If your little one does not improve soon with self-help tips or the cough develops into something more serious, see your doctor as soon as possible. The following symptoms must immediately be reported to the doctor:

  • Going blue or very pale around the lips or the lips themselves
  • Blue fingernails
  • Difficult breathing with abdomen sucked in with the effort
  • Terror or distress on your child’s face with breathing or coughing
  • If you suspect a serious allergic reaction to a dietary or environmental factor
  • If your child has choked and you cannot dislodge any occluding object
  • If your child vomits with or after coughing.

Different coughs explained


The Greek word ‘asthma’ literally means panting, a very accurate description of how asthmatics often breathe. This is because the bronchial tubes either go into spasm or their mucous membranes swell, narrowing the space for air flow. Common triggers for this painful, frightening and potentially life-threatening condition are allergies, stress, heart disease and occasionally it occurs in children, due to occlusion of the larynx, possibly resulting from an enlargement of the thymus gland. Asthma in children mostly does not start until between 2 and 3 years, although younger babies will mostly have wheezy chests and frequent respiratory infections or excess mucus. The cough is mostly tight, dry and painful. Children often outgrow asthma in adolescence, but it is a serious disease and you should never attempt to treat it single-handedly or simply stop medication without your doctor’s guidance.


Croup is inflammation of the vocal cords with swelling around the throat and airway area, resulting in difficult breathing (often wheezing is heard and the baby goes blue around the mouth). It may be a serious condition. Sometimes it is accompanied by a dry, hacking cough that sounds like a bark and at other times, a loose, mucusy cough. Symptoms are usually worse at night and in winter, and your baby may or may not have a fever. This condition may respond well to self-treatment, but it is not to be taken lightly and a medical practitioner must preferably be consulted.

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough is one of the infectious childhood diseases for which immunisation is given. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘hwopan’ literally means ‘to threaten’. The terror on a child’s face as an attack is about to begin tells of the serious and uncomfortable nature of this acute disease. Children who have been immunised against whooping cough are not totally protected against it and may suffer its symptoms for more protracted periods than others, if less severely so. It usually starts with cold-like symptoms for up to a fortnight. This is followed by a violent coughing stage. Each paroxysm of short, sharp, painful coughs is followed by a long involuntary intake of breath – and this gives rise to the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound, due to the spasm of the deep throat (larynx) area. This coughing stage can last for several weeks, and then a gradual decline in severity and frequency of coughing occurs.