This Is What Croup *Really* Sounds Like


how does a croup cough sound

We’ve all been told what croup is supposed to sound like: a “barking” cough, high pitched and loud accompanied by “wheezing” type breathing noises.  This is a gross understatement of what croup actually sounds like, or what it sounded like in our household at 4:00am last Saturday morning.

After going to bed in what seemed to be a perfectly healthy state, our 23-month old son woke up in the wee hours of the morning coughing loudly and uncontrollably and gasping for breath.  Hearing the strange sounds on the monitor, I ran into his room and lifted him out of his crib to see his eyes wide with fright — he couldn’t stop coughing or get enough air into his lungs to breathe normally. The sounds coming from his throat sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before.

They say a croup cough sounds like a barking seal. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 18 years and I have yet to hear a seal, or a sea lion, make this kind of noise. It was loud, strange, and alarming. My little guy was just as scared as I was with this whole situation. It was one of those moments of parenthood where you fear for your child’s life and that fight-or-flight response completely consumes you.

I grabbed my glasses, woke my husband, and ran right out the front door. Luckily, we’re only four blocks from an ER, so not more than five minutes later we were checking in at CPMC.   As we entered the building, I was breathless and sweating, and when I tried to give the check-in nurse our information, all I could manage was, “My son can’t breathe; he can’t breathe!”  Though we’d been in the building all of 15 seconds, she immediately put me at ease with a diagnosis: “Mama, it’s going to be ok. He has croup. It’s going to be ok.”

We later learned that croup often comes on exactly as it did for us: in the middle of the night, after your little one (usually 1 – 3 years old) has gone to bed seemingly healthy, with no presence of a fever, and more typically in boys (though girls can contract croup, too). The very kind and caring team of nurses at CPMC last weekend told us that we were the third case of croup they’d seen that night.

I share this story in the hopes that other moms will come to know that although the sound of croup is incredibly scary, it is actually quite common and can be easily treated by medical professionals.  After a steroid and a nebulizer treatment, we were sent home with instructions to spend the afternoon in a warm, steamy bathroom or to bundle up and go outdoors. Lucky for us, Karl the Fog had decided to camp out in our neighborhood all weekend long. Turns out cool, foggy air is the perfect antidote to sore, swollen airways.


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