Barking Cough: Common and Serious Medical Causes

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a barking cough?

A barking cough is a dry, harsh cough that resembles the sound of a barking seal. This type of cough is most often associated with croup (laryngotracheitis). Croup is usually caused by viruses. Bacterial infection may occur secondarily. Parainfluenza virus type 1 is the most common cause of croup; other causes include respiratory syncytial virus and influenza virus. Croup causes swelling and inflammation of the area around your voice box (larynx). In some cases, this swelling can become severe and lead to a blocked airway (airway occlusion). Children are especially vulnerable to developing a blocked airway because of the small size of their airways.

A barking cough can have other causes, such as diphtheria, inhaling a foreign object, choking, or infection of the epiglottis (epiglottitis). Your epiglottis is the flap of cartilage that covers your windpipe (trachea) and prevents food from entering the bronchi and lungs.

In some cases, a cough with a barking quality may occur with the common cold. In addition, a barking cough is sometimes used to describe the cough that occurs with pertussis (whooping cough). However, a cough associated with this disease is usually described as a having “whooping” sound as the person gasps for air.

In children, a barking cough can be a sign of a life-threatening condition, such as a blocked airway. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, your child, or someone you are with, have serious respiratory symptoms, such as an untreated barking cough, abnormal breathing sounds, difficulty breathing, pale or blue lips or skin, drooling, difficulty swallowing, extreme irritability, sore throat, high fever, and shaking chills.

What other symptoms might occur with a barking cough?

A barking cough may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

A barking cough is often caused by croup. Croup usually starts as a mild cold with a fever, runny nose, poor appetite, and an occasional cough. As the illness progresses, the cough becomes more frequent and takes on the barking sound. The cough can be accompanied by hoarseness and abnormal breathing sounds. A croup cough is usually much worse at night and in dry rooms.

Common symptoms that may occur along with a barking cough

A barking cough may occur with other symptoms including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with a barking cough

A barking cough may accompany other less common symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, a barking cough can be lead to life-threatening situations. Choking and epiglottitis are always considered life-threatening conditions and croup can lead to life-threatening complications in some cases. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, your child, or someone you are with, have an undiagnosed barking cough or any of the following symptoms:

  • Abnormal, hoarse or coarse breathing sounds (stridor)

  • Agitation or extreme irritability

  • Change in alertness or level of consciousness, such a lethargy, unresponsiveness, or passing out

  • Difficulty breathing, speaking or swallowing

  • Drooling

  • Not responding to home croup treatments, such as staying in a steamy bathroom

  • Pale or bluish coloration of the lips, skin or fingernails (cyanosis)

  • Shaking chills

  • Tugging, pulling, or collapsing of the muscles in the neck or between the ribs when breathing (muscle retractions)

  • Voice changes

What causes a barking cough?

A barking cough is most often associated with croup, a respiratory disease usually caused by a viral infection that mainly affects infants and children. A barking cough can also be caused by other factors that irritate and cause inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords, such as a bacterial infection or exposure to an allergen or an irritant, such as regurgitated stomach acid.

In some cases, inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords can become severe and lead to a blocked airway (airway occlusion). Croup can usually be managed at home with the advice of your health care provider, but if home treatments do not quickly relieve the cough, you should seek emergency medical care (or call 911).

Other causes of a barky-type cough can include the common cold and postnasal drip.

Serious or life-threatening causes of a barking cough

In some cases, a barking cough may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting by calling 911. These include:

  • Acute asthma attack

  • Diphtheria (serious bacterial infection)

  • Epiglottitis (inflammation of the epiglottis caused by an infection)

  • Inhalation of a foreign object or possible choking

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a barking cough

To aid in diagnosing the cause of your cough, your doctor or licensed health care provider may ask you questions related to your symptoms including:

  • When did your cough begin?

  • Have you had previous episodes of this cough?

  • Does your cough improve upon exposure to cold air?

  • Are you coughing up anything (including blood)?

  • Are you breathing through your mouth (instead of your nose)?

  • Is the cough keeping you up at night?

  • Do you have a fever?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of a barking cough?

A barking cough can be a sign of an infectious or inflammatory process, which can lead to serious complications in some cases. If you have an unexplained cough, see your health care provider. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications of underlying diseases including:

  • Airway occlusion

  • Respiratory arrest

  • Respiratory distress

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Cough, Barking. Schilling-McCann JA, Holmes HN, Robinson JM, et al. Nursing: Interpreting Signs and Symptoms. Ambler, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008: 153-154.