Croup (KROOP) is a children's disease that is marked by a barking cough and loud noise when a child with croup inhales. Children with croup have difficulty breathing; parents often are worried by the dramatic sound effects at the beginning of the illness, but complete recovery from the viral infection that usually causes croup can be expected.
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What Is Croup?
The word croup is used to describe several conditions that cause a loud, barking cough and difficulty with breathing. Some croup-like conditions are caused by allergy, others may be caused by bacterial infections, but the majority of cases, about 75 percent, are caused by parainfluenza or other types of viruses.
All three types of croup cause the vocal cords and areas below them to become swollen and inflamed. As the swelling causes the upper airways to become narrower and more constricted, the pitch of the breathing sounds and the barking cough may become higher.
Adults are at risk for croup, but it is mainly a children's disease, affecting infants and toddlers especially, and children up to about age 12 years. Adult croup does not lead to the same narrowing of the upper airways as in children, because the airways of adults are wider and the supporting tissue is firmer than in children.
What Happens to People with Croup?
The degree of obstruction of the airways is the doctor's most important consideration in diagnosing and treating croup. If the bronchi (breathing tubes), the lungs, or the epiglottis (the little finger-like tissue extension at the back of the throat) become infected, a child may be unable to breathe or swallow adequately and that is a true medical emergency. Most cases of croup, however, can be treated at home.
Cases of mild croup are treated at home with vaporizers and humidifiers. A makeshift steam room can be set up by closing the door of the bathroom and running hot water from a shower. The steam from the shower will put moisture into the child's airway, which can help open up the airway and relieve the child's cough. A cool-mist humidifier can be run in the child's room throughout the night.
Serious cases of croup
Signs of more serious croup infection are muscles of the neck or chest that sink in with each breath taken by the child. Serious croup infections require immediate medical treatment. Hospitals sometimes use mist therapy to increase room humidity. The child may be kept in what is called a croup tent to maximize the effect of the cool mist therapy. Inhaled medications may be prescribed to help control spasms and swellings in the upper airways.
A cool mist vaporizer is a device that uses water and sometimes medication to create an aerosol vapor. The vaporizer can keep bedrooms humid (moist), which is helpful for croup or other respiratory conditions that benefit from moisture rather than dry air.
A steam vaporizer is a device that is filled with water. The water gives off steam when it is boiled. Steam vaporizers can cause burns and should not be used near children.
How Dangerous Is Croup?
Most cases of croup clear up by themselves in five to six days or less with the hoarseness, cough, and other sounds of labored breathing subsiding gradually. Some cases may take longer. Stridor (STRY-dor), the high-pitched breathing sound, may persist, and ear infections or pneumonia are possible complications in some cases. When croup interferes with breathing, hospital care is usually needed. Ear infections or pneumonia are possible complications in some cases. Outbreaks of croup usually occur in the late fall or winter.