What is croup and how does it effect toddlers?

What does croup look like in toddlers?

What does croup look like in toddlers?

Croup is a viral illness in young children which causes narrowing of the upper airways. Croup is often a mild illness but can quickly become serious, so do not hesitate to get medical help.

The funny thing about croup is that it’s like the vampire of toddler illnesses. During the day it may not have a visible impact beyond your toddler eating little (and lets face it sometimes they do want to live on air and crayons) and sounding hoarse. For Miss 2, it was that she woke up on Mother’s Day having largely lost her voice, was eating little, and had a mild temperature in the afternoon.

Toddlers have softer windpipes than older children so it’s often when they lie down to sleep that the narrowed airways will become more apparent. Their breathing may start to wheeze and become progressively more of a struggle; it can also cause a strange cough (stridor). What does a croup cough sound like in a two year old? It sounds a bit like a lion purring or a seal bark; personally I think stridor sounds most like a lion coughing up a fur ball.  The animal metaphors might sound cute but the cough can be so loud that it’s enough to travel between rooms and wake you up at night; it can also be frightening if it’s the first time you’ve heard it and you have no idea what it means!

For many children, croup will be a mild illness (which can recur) and which can be treated at home. For others, they need to see a doctor or require urgent medical care. In New Zealand there is a registered nurse available 24/7 to provide free health advice on Healthline (0800 611 116); they can help assess your child and advise whether to ring for an ambulance or wait to see a doctor the next morning.

Personally, I think that croup is worse for children that have allergies. In fact, as well as viral croup, there is also a form of spasmodic croup which may be caused by Gastric Reflux Disease (GERDs) or by allergies. I’ve also read blog posts from other allergy families where croup has become a recurrent problem for their toddllers.

For Miss 2, I was woken at 1am by her strange noises (the croup cough) and found her struggling to breathe; she’d also started a mild fever while she was sleeping. She already has enflamed adenoids, turbinates, and tonsils as a result of her airborne allergies (and any undiagnosed food intolerances) so having her airways swell further was frightening.  My gut instinct said she needed immediate help and I rang Heathline to check if I should was right, if I should drive her to the children’s hospital (which would delay things) or ring an ambulance. After listening to her breathe, I was told to ring an ambulance.

She was so sick that she slept most of the night in the Emergency Ward bed; she needed to be kept semi-upright (to help her airways). Her fever worsened, even with parecetamol, and didn’t break until morning. The recommended treatment for croup is oral steroids. This made me nervous as:

  • she’s allergic to topical steroids
  • even temporary steroids can cause massive behavioural changes and tantrums in toddlers.

Her allergy to topical steroids results in awful periorficial dermatitis rather than anaphylaxis and having her airways potentially constrict in life threatening ways – so I opted for the oral steroid.

It definitely helped with her breathing. She still had virtually no voice on Day 2 or 3 (it might take a week to return) and I still had to sit up with her on Night 2 but her breathing was manageable at home and no where near as bad as the night she was hospitalised. Thankfully she also hasn’t had any major tantrums so far; mind you, she’s probably too tired to tantrum yet. She’s eating very little as her throat is so sore and is mainly sticking to formula, sips of water, and the occasional mouthful of soft foods.

NOTE – Thank you to all the readers that have shared their stories with me!

I continue to feel that croup can be a much more serious illness for families with medically fragile children – including food allergies, airborne/environmental allergies, asthma, and reflux. Doctors will most commonly look for croup in babies and very young toddlers but plenty of allergy families have shared that their children have continued to have viral croup up to age 10!

If you’re familiar with what a croup cough sounds like then do advocate on behalf of your child for medical care if it’s needed – you’re the one awake in the wee hours of the night hearing it (and they may not have the cough during the day)!  Don’t hesitate to ring for an ambulance at night if your child is struggling to breathe!

It’s worth investigating what charges there are for your local ambulance service and if they have a subscription service. If you live in New Zealand, it’s around NZD$90 for each medical emergency (non-ACC) call-out of a St John’s ambulance but you can get an annual ambulance subscription for the whole household for NZD$65 per year. I’m so glad that I signed us up for membership after her ambulance trip just before Christmas!


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