Croup is usually caused by parainfluenza viruses. Other viral infections that can cause croup include RSV, measles, adenovirus, and influenza.
Croup was once a deadly disease caused by diphtheria bacteria. However, modern day antibiotics and immunizations have helped prevent or treat it. Today, most cases of croup are mild. Nevertheless, it can still be dangerous.
Croup tends to appear in children between 3 months and 5 years old, but it can happen at any age. Some children are more likely to get croup and may get it several times.
In the U.S., it is most common between October and March, but can occur at any time of the year.
In severe cases of croup, there may also be a bacterial superinfection of the upper airway. This condition is called bacterial tracheitis and requires a hospital stay and antibiotics through a vein. If the epiglottis becomes infected, the entire windpipe can swell shut, a potentially deadly condition called epiglottitis.
Croup features a cough that sounds like a seal barking. Most children have what appears to be a mild cold for several days before the barking cough becomes evident. As the cough gets more frequent, the child may have labored breathing or stridor (a harsh, crowing noise made during inspiration).
Croup is typically much worse at night. It often lasts 5 or 6 nights, but the first night or two are usually the most severe. Rarely, croup can last for weeks. Croup that lasts longer than a week or recurs frequently should be discussed with your doctor to determine the cause.
Signs and tests
Children with croup are usually diagnosed based on the parent's description of the symptoms and a physical exam. Sometimes a doctor will even identify croup by listening to a child cough over the phone. Occasionally other studies, such as x-rays, are needed.
A physical examination may show chest retractions with breathing. Listening to the chest through a stethoscope may reveal prolonged inspiration or expiration, wheezing, and decreased breath sounds.
An examination of the throat may reveal a red epiglottis. A neck x-ray may reveal a foreign object or narrowing of the trachea.
Most cases of croup can be safely managed at home, but call your health care provider for guidance, even in the middle of the night.
Cool or moist air might bring relief. You might first try bringing the child into a steamy bathroom or outside into the cool night air. If you have a cool air vaporizer, set it up in the child's bedroom and use it for the next few nights.
Acetaminophen can make the child more comfortable and lower a fever, lessening his or her breathing needs. Avoid cough medicines unless you discuss them with your doctor first.
You may want your child to be seen. Steroid medicines can be very effective at promptly relieving the symptoms of croup. Medicated aerosol treatments, if necessary, are also powerful.
Medications are used to help reduce upper airway swelling. This may include aerosolized racemic epinephrine, corticosteroids taken by mouth, such as dexamethasone and prednisone, and inhaled or injected forms of other corticosteroids. Oxygen and humidity may be provided in an oxygen tent placed over a crib. A bacterial infection requires antibiotic therapy.
Increasing obstruction of the airway requires intubation (placing a tube through the nose or mouth through the larynx into the main air passage to the lungs). Intravenous fluids are given for dehydration. In some cases, corticosteroids are prescribed.
Viral croup usually goes away in 3 to 7 days. The outlook for bacterial croup is good with prompt treatment.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, call 911 or your health care provider for any of the following:
Stridor (noise when breathing in)
Retractions (tugging-in between the ribs when breathing in)
Struggling to breathe
Agitation or extreme irritability
Not responding to home treatment
Do NOT wait until morning to address the problem.
Wash your hands frequently and avoid close contact with those who have a respiratory infection.
The diphtheria, Haemophilus influenzae (Hib), and measles vaccines protect children from some of the most dangerous forms of croup.
Hall CB, McBride JT. Acute laryngotracheobronchitis (croup). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 56.
Everard ML. Acute bronchiolitis and croup. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2009;56(1):119-133.
Roosevelt GE. Acute inflammatory upper airway obstruction (croup, epiglottitis, laryngitis, and bacterial tracheitis). In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 377.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.