When Did I Get a Seal? A Croup Story...

I still remember vividly the first night my oldest son got croup. He was about 20 months old at the time and was usually a really good, deep sleeper. That night, however, was different because he kept waking up crying and had a strange cough I had never heard before. But a cough's a cough's a cough, or so I thought, so I put him back to bed thinking he just needed rest and he'd feel better in the morning.

I put him back to bed twice. Then the third time he woke up, I almost called an ambulance. He could barely breathe. It was like something was blocking his windpipe, then he'd scream and force the air through and finally take a breath. Almost like an asthma attack. Or something. I didn't know what was wrong. I only knew that my son couldn't breathe.

That was at about 2:00 in the morning. My husband decided to forego calling 911 and just get him to the ER as quickly as possible. We gathered him and his baby sister up and drove as fast as our little compact car would go, and wouldn't you know it, it didn't take long at all for his breathing to return to normal, and he seemed fine. A little shaken up, but fine.
Of course, I thought. This always seems to happen to me - I think something's terribly wrong, and it turns out to be nothing.

But we knew whatever had happened at home was NOT normal, so we continued to the ER and had him looked at. I just knew they were going to tell us we were crazy and send us on our merry way.

Thankfully, though, they didn't. Instead, they knew right away that it was croup.

Croup? What is that? Is that even a word? Why haven't I ever heard of it before? Is it like asthma? Does he need an inhaler? Medication? Is this going to affect him for the rest of his life?

Thankfully again, the answer to most of those questions was no. I have since learned that croup is an inflammation of the upper airways usually caused by a virus. Other things can also trigger it like smoky or dry air (fires from California had made our air quality pretty poor that month, so that may have been what started it). The tell-tale sign of croup is a harsh, barky cough (like a seal), the strange cough that my son had. It usually isn't severe but can become so if left untreated or it can develop into bronchitis or pneumonia. It is easily treated with a breathing treatment and an oral steroid.

My son did not like the breathing treatment. We stuck a machine in his face which blew water vapor and medication into his mouth and nose. Yeah, that could be pretty scary for a toddler. He screamed and cried and tossed his head from side to side trying to avoid it. But the respiratory therapist was actually pleased with all of the fussing because each time he drew in a breath between the screams, he'd get a big whiff of the medication, too.

He has since come to embrace the "smoke" as he calls it. He knows that it makes him feel better. That's right, my son has had this treatment so many times that he has his own cute little nickname for it. When he starts to get that barky cough, he says, "I want my smoke!"
You see, once you've had croup, you're more prone to get it again. I honestly can't even tell you how many times he's had it, but I'd say right around a dozen. Several that first year after that first time. And it always happens at night! Which of course means a trip to the ER as opposed to a visit to the Quick Care. So not cool!

Since he has turned 4, though (and he's now 5), he hasn't had it at all. And that's another interesting thing about croup - kids are prone to "growing out of it" by the time they are 4 or 5, thank goodness! And even though it's supposed to be highly contagious, that hasn't been the case in our house. Out of all of those times that he had it, he never passed it on to his sister (again, thank goodness!)

But as one door closes, another one opens - my 1-year-old baby boy has had croup twice in this his first year. So even though it looks like my oldest one is out of the woods, I now get to start afresh with my little guy. Boo. (The second time he got it we actually noticed it during the day instead of the middle of the night!...on New Year's Day. When the doctor’s office is closed. Shucks! Almost avoided the ER on that one!)

But I think I have found the best way to prevent croup from setting in in the first place, and it cost a little bit of money up-front, but it's relatively simple - a cool mist humidifier. Remember how I said that shortly after we got him in the car that first night he stopped coughing and seemed fine? It was because of the cool night air. If you think your child might have a croupy cough, bundle them up really well and take them outside for a few minutes (even in winter). If it is croup, the coughing should subside until he’s been back inside for a while. The cool mist humidifier works the same way.
Now the first night we took my oldest in, the respiratory therapist advised us against getting a humidifier because they can harbor bacteria and cause more problems than they prevent. But approximately 10 ER visits over 2 years and after hearing several nurses and doctors suggest that I get one, I finally did. And I'm pretty sure that's when the late-night ER visits stopped for him. 

Humidifiers can be a problem with bacteria if they aren't properly cleaned every day and week, but if you take those steps, then you should be fine. I have an ultrasonic one by Bionaire that I got from Costco. I just need to change the water in the tank and dump out the water in the reservoir every day. It has to be properly cleaned each week by taking 20 minutes to chlorinate and vinegarate the tank and reservoir. It's not hard. You just have to add it to your already packed to-do list! It's a little annoying, having one more thing to think about, I know, but it sure beats sitting at the hospital for 3-4 hours once every couple of months.

I'll be honest, I don't usually dump the reservoir every day, just the tank, and I'm not very good with keeping up with the weekly cleaning. But if a week has gone by and I haven't gotten around to cleaning it, then I don't run it. I've found that I can go a week before we all start waking up with dry, rough throats, and then the coughing begins shortly after that (a normal cough, at first. Not a croupy one). I don't know if it’s just our Idaho air or our oil heat, but it is so dry in our house during the winter! Then the coughing motivates me to get it done and turn it back on because I DO NOT WANT CROUP in my house! And then we are all peachy again for another week.

The humidifier is set up in my kids’ room (the older two share one) and the baby, my husband, and I are in a room next to theirs. Even though we don't have a separate one for our room, I've noticed that having it on helps the air in our room stay humid as well.
Croup can be a little scary when you don't know what is happening to your child, but having the knowledge of what to do to avoid it and how to treat it makes it manageable. Giving them the proper medications quickly helps clear it right up, and my little ones are running around like crazy again before I even know it!

Today's guest poster is my friend and sister-in-law Trisha Gronenthal, a wife and mother of three who blogs over at Mastering the Art of Mommyhood.

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