Home » Guide to the Wise Use of Antibiotics » Cough


Most coughs in children and adults are caused by viral infections of the respiratory tract.  The respiratory tract looks like an upside down tree.

Infections of the respiratory tract are named according to the part that is affected.

Antibiotics do not help coughs caused by viruses.  Occasionally a cough might be due to pneumonia. In this case antibiotics are usually given.

Laryngitis Vocal cords Older children / adults Virus
Croup Vocal cords and windpipe Younger children Virus
Bronchitis* Breathing tubes (large) Older children / adults Virus
Bronchiolitis Breathing tubes (small) Infants Virus
Pneumonia Air sacs All ages Bacteria or virus

*Refers to individuals with otherwise healthy lungs


  • Fever, cough and chest pain.
  • Coughing up mucus that may be yellow or green. This does not mean it is a bacterial infection.
  • Wheezing may occur.

NOTE:  With viral bronchitis, 45% of people still cough after 2 weeks. 25% of people still cough after 3 weeks.


  • Drink plenty of fluids such as water or juice. Warm clear fluids such as soup will help relax the airways.  Offer these to your child if your child has a cough.  Get lots of rest or allow your child to get plenty of rest.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier.
  • Cough suppressants and decongestants may help older children and adults but should be used with caution in younger children.  NOTE:  Do not give these products to infants or children under the age of six years without first talking with your doctor.  NOTE:  Decongestants and cough syrup might also contain fever reducing medication.  Read labels carefully and check with your pharmacist or doctor to avoid overdosing.
  • Plain cough drops (not antibacterial) may help older children and adults.  Avoid antibacterial cough drops because they can lead to antibiotic resistance.  NOTE:  Cough drops should not be given to children less than six years of age because of the risk of choking.
  • For pneumonia, a chest x-ray is recommended and antibiotics are usually prescribed.

When to seek medical attention:

Children:  See your doctor if your child. . .

  • Has a fever lasting more than 3 days
  • Has a cough  associated with vomiting
  • Is very ill (especially after 2-3 days) and does not want to eat or drink

Adults:  Adults should consult their doctor, nurse practitioner or provincial health help line if symptoms worsen or are unusually severe.

When to Worry about your child

Go to the emergency department if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing not caused by a stuffy nose
  • A fever with shaking chills
  • Blue lips
  • Limp or unable to move
  • Hard to wake up, unusually quiet or unresponsive
  • Stiff neck
  • Seems confused
  • Seizure