Croup has an unmistakable sound — a harsh, repetitive cough similar to the noise of a seal barking. Attacks of croup often jar children awake and leave them frightened and gasping for breath. Croup can be scary for parents, too, but it's usually not serious.

What is it?

The harsh, barking cough is the result of swelling around the vocal cords (larynx) and windpipe (trachea). When the cough reflex forces air through this narrowed passage, the vocal cords vibrate with a barking noise. Because children have small airways to begin with, those younger than age 5 are most susceptible to croup.

Fluids, moist air and other self-care measures can speed recovery from croup. If you stay calm, you can quiet your child's cough so that everyone can get back to sleep.

What causes it?

Croup is often caused by the parainfluenza virus. Less often, respiratory syncytial virus, the measles virus or various other viruses cause croup.

Your child may contract a virus by breathing infected respiratory droplets coughed or sneezed into the air. Virus particles in these droplets also may survive on toys and other surfaces. If your child touches a contaminated surface and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth, an infection may follow.

Rarely, croup may be caused by a bacterial infection.

What are the symptoms?

The classic sign of croup is a loud, harsh, barking cough — which often comes in bursts at night. Your child's breathing may be labored or noisy. Fever and a hoarse voice are common, too.

Are there any natural therapies?

Self-care measures at home — such as breathing moist air and drinking fluids — can speed your child's recovery. More aggressive treatment is rarely needed.

It is important that both you and your child stay calm, as being anxious will make breathing more difficult. Rest is also important. Hold your child, sing lullabies or read quiet stories. Offer a favorite blanket or toy. Speak in a soothing voice. Your presence can help keep your child calm.

Steam may help to loosen any phlegm. Turn on the shower and let the steam fill your bathroom. Walk with your child around the room (but not under the shower) and encourage them to take deep breaths.

What else can I do?

Croup often runs its course within three to seven days. In the meantime, keep your child comfortable with a few simple measures.

  • Say calm.
  • Moisten the air.
  • Get cool.
  • Hold your child in an upright position.
  • Offer fluids.
  • Encourage your child to rest.

Did you know?

Croup is most common in children age 5 and younger — particularly those who were born prematurely. Signs and symptoms are typically most severe in children age 3 and younger.