Dr Mark Rosenthal


Consultant in Paediatric Respiratory Medicine

also specialist in Food Allergies & Disorders of Sleep

A | A | A

T: 0207 351 8754

E: s.harvey@rbht.nhs.uk

A:The Royal Brompton Hospital, London, SW3 6NP

What is Psychogenic Cough in Children?

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Coughing is a common symptom in children, but it usually occurs along with other signs of a cold or infection, such as a runny nose or fever. If your child has been coughing for a while, without having these other symptoms, then something else might be going on. One of the possible causes is a psychogenic cough, but this term can be unfamiliar to many parents. Keep reading to find out what your doctor means by this diagnosis and what other possible causes of persistent coughing in children may need to be ruled out.


Psychogenic Coughing in Children

Psychogenic coughs are also known as habit coughs. Psychogenic or habit coughs are usually seen in children or teenagers, although adults can develop them too. The cough usually begins as part of a cold or respiratory infection, alongside other symptoms. It is common for coughs to last a little longer than the other symptoms, but a habit cough can last for more than a few weeks. Habit coughs are also different than coughs caused by infections because they disappear when your child is asleep or when they are distracted, for example when playing. Unlike other coughs, habit coughs won’t be triggered or made worse by exercise. However, it may appear or get worse when your child is feeling stressed or anxious.

What makes a habit cough so different from other coughs is that there is not a physical cause. Psychogenic coughs usually develop after your child has been coughing for another reason (such as a cold or chest infection). The cough can become a habit, so that they keep coughing even though there is no need to do so.

It’s important to be aware that habit coughs are not intentional and your child isn’t coughing on purpose. The best way to get rid of a psychogenic cough is to be patient and help your child to resist the urge to cough. Starting from just five or ten minutes, the length of time that you child holds back their cough can be gradually increased until the habit disappears completely.

Other Possible Causes of Coughing in Children

Although a persistent cough could be psychogenic, there are some other possible causes that your doctor will want to rule out. Coughing can be a sign of asthma in children, especially if it often happens after exercising or if your child also has other symptoms such as wheezing. Another possible cause of coughing can be sleep apnoea in children. However, sleep apnoea in children can easily be differentiated from other causes such as psychogenic coughing. A psychogenic cough only happens when your child is awake, while coughing caused by sleep apnoea in children will only occur when they are sleeping.

Finding out what is causing your child’s cough is the first step towards treating it. Psychogenic coughs can usually be eliminated with the right approach, while conditions such as asthma and sleep apnoea in children can be managed with medication or other treatments.