Medical Q&As

Croup - what is it?

My young daughter has recently been diagnosed with croup. Can you tell me a bit about it so that I can understand it more?

Croup is very common especially at this time of year. The characteristic feature is a harsh, dry, barking cough that has been compared to the sound of a performing seal calling for fish. The cough is quite distinctive and indicates that inflammation is present in the airways between the throat and the major bronchi in the lungs. Its precise medical name is acute laryngo-tracheitis. No other site of inflammation in the entire respiratory tract will produce a similar sound. The young child’s larynx is small in diameter and is also flabby unlike the rigid wall of the adult larynx. These are the anatomical factors that result in the distinctive cough. Sometimes the infection can extend downwards into the lungs giving rise to a condition called laryngo-tracheo-bronchitis. Viruses are the commonest cause but it can sometimes be caused by a bacterium called haemophilus, which is why antibiotics are often used to treat the condition. Steam inhalation can alleviate the cough but you have to be very careful with this treatment because of the attendant risk of scalding especially when treating toddlers. Many GPs treat croup by administering a small dose of steroid through a nebuliser. Many parents will be familiar with such devices, which are often used in the treatment of exacerbations of asthma. Nebulised steroids can have a dramatic effect on the condition. Croup tends to be a short lasting illness and the vast majority of cases can be treated at home. However, in the case of very young infants or in situations of respiratory distress hospitalisation may occasionally be necessary.