What you need to know

  • Coughs are common in children – especially around preschool age –  and can be caused by colds or asthma.
  • Most coughs will either be wet or dry and will sound different, depending on the type of cough.
  • Whooping cough can be serious in babies, so take your pēpē to the doctor if you suspect they have whooping cough.
  • Avoid over-the-counter cough mixture for tamariki under six, as there’s no evidence these medicines work for kids and there's a risk of serious side effects.


Coughing helps to clear the airways in the chest and throat. Coughs are common in children – especially around preschool age and can be caused by:

  • colds
  • asthma
  • chest infections
  • an irritation in the airway
  • inhaling an object.

Second-hand cigarette smoke can also cause children to cough, even when they are well.

A cough can last up to three to four days and will usually get worse before slowly improving. 

Types of coughs

Listen to see if your child’s cough is wet or dry and when they cough the most. Do they cough at night, early in the morning or with feeding? This information may be helpful later if your child’s cough doesn't improve and you decide to take them to a doctor. 

A wet cough  

  • sounds 'chesty' and phlegmy. 

A dry cough 

  • is less likely to produce phlegm (mucus). 
  • can sound irritated, harsh, barking, or whooping.

Whooping cough

  • coughing spells that can last for two to three minutes.

Whooping cough spreads easily (it's contagious) and can cause serious illness or sometimes death in babies.

See your doctor if your baby is under one year and has been in contact with someone who has whooping cough, or if your baby is under three months old and has a cough.

Whooping cough


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Avoid over-the-counter cough mixture for children under six. There’s no evidence these medicines work for kids and there is a risk of serious side effects including: 

  • abnormal heart rate 
  • allergic reactions  
  • reduced consciousness in children 
  • accidental overdose. 

Paracetamol is not classed as cough and cold medicines and can be given to children, if required. 

When to visit a doctor

Take your child to see a doctor if your tamariki:

  • has a persistent daily cough 
  • has other symptoms like a fever, lacks energy or seems unwell 
  • has a cough that has become worse or they haven’t improved.

Visit the doctor urgently if your child:

  • is working hard to breathe or is breathing fast 
  • you can hear wheezing or whistling in their chest 
  • continues to cough after choking on something 
  • has a seal-like barking cough 
  • has started dribbling excessively 
  • an older child has difficulty speaking normally, or can’t finish a whole sentence because of their coughing or breathing.