A Seal Barking… In the ED?? – Croup Management in the Emergency Department

A Seal Barking… In the ED?? – Croup Management in the Emergency Department: A Medical Student Clinical Pearl

Kalpesh Hathi, CC3
MD Candidate, Class of 2023
Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick

Reviewed by Dr. Jeremy Gross

Copyedited by Dr. Mandy Peach

All case histories are illustrative and not based on any individual.

Case Presentation:

You are the clinical clerk in the ED on a cold Monday, December afternoon. You pick up a chart that describes a 12-month-old baby boy, with a 1-day history of subjective fever of 38.4 C at its highest, respiratory distress, decreased PO intake and mom noting a barking cough.

Vitals: HR: 100 BPM, RR: 45, SpO2: 98% RA, BP: 90/65, Temp: 36.8 C, GCS 15, Wt: 10.2 kg.

You pull out your normal pediatrics vitals chart, and note that aside from a mildly elevated RR, these vitals are within normal limits for this child’s age and the child is afebrile.


What would you want to include in your history and physical?



On history, mom says that the child began having classic URTI symptoms on Sunday (1 day ago) including a cough, rhinorrhea, and increased work of breathing. He also had a temperature of 38.4 C by ear on Sunday. Today, he began having what mom describes as increased work of breathing and a barking seal like cough.

Mom shows you two videos from this morning of the increased work of breathing and the barking-seal like cough:

Example of increased work of breathing (assume this is at home without the monitors attached):


As an astute clerk, you look for signs of increased work of breathing including tracheal tug, chest wall indrawing (inter, supra, or subcostal), abdominal breathing, grunting, head bobbing, cyanosis, nasal flaring, pursed lip breathing, and tachypnea.

Example of barking seal-like cough:


You agree that this sounds classically like a croup presentation.

The rest of the history including pregnancy, family, social, developmental, medications, allergies, and medical is largely unremarkable. The child’s vaccinations are up to date.

Mom is concerned as she feels the child is feeding and drinking less, but they are still having a normal number of wet (~6/day) and dirty (~1/day) diapers.


Physical Exam:

The child appears well in the ED, they are fussy and fighting your exam, they are jumping on the bed and playing with mom, they find comfort in mom, and they are even playing peek-a-boo with the RNs. You currently do not hear the barking seal like cough, nor stridor. They have mild intercostal indrawing, but no other signs of respiratory distress. No cyanosis is present.

Vitals are unchanged from the chart; the RR is still mildly elevated at ~40-45/min.

Resp: Mildly decreased air entry bilaterally, no crackles/wheezes. Mild stridor transmitted from upper respiratory tract upon agitation.

Fluid Status: Moist mucous membranes, fontanelles not bulging or sunken in, skin turgor is normal (no excessive tenting of skin), and when prompted they drink apple juice mixed with water.

You complete a thorough head to toe exam including HEENT, Neuro, Cardio, Abdo, GU, and MSK, aside from some cerumen in the ears and some rhinorrhea, the exam is within normal limits.

Differential Diagnosis [1-3]:


Bacterial tracheitis



Foreign body aspiration



Peritonsillar abscess

Retropharyngeal abscess

Acute anaphylaxis reaction



  • Bronchiolitis and lower respiratory tract infections would present with wheeze rather than stridor [1-3].
  • Peritonsillar and retropharyngeal abscesses would have a hot potato voice, and potentially a mass on the neck [1-3].
  • In children <6 months old it is important to consider congenital presentations such as choanal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula [1-3].
  • URTI symptoms would not be present in isolated foreign body aspiration but should be considered [1-3].
  • It is important to differentiate croup from epiglottitis because epiglottitis can lead to rapid deterioration and often requires operating room intubation [1,2]. Drooling suggests epiglottitis whereas cough suggests croup, both have a high sensitivity and specificity for each respective diagnosis [1-3,4].
  • Bacterial tracheitis the child would look much sicker and more toxic, and this would be represented on vital signs as well [1-3].



Croup is a viral illness most commonly caused by parainfluenza virus, it is formally called laryngotracheobronchitis as it is inflammation of upper airway including the larynx, trachea, and bronchi [1,5].

Croup is a common presentation to Canadian emergency departments, most of which will be mild forms of croup, however occasionally hospitalization will be required, and rarely intubation is needed [1,6]

Classically croup will present in children between 6 months – 3 years old, with a 1-2 day history of URTI symptoms followed by a barking cough and stridor [1,7,8]. As this causes inflammation and obstruction of the upper respiratory tract, stridor will be present and often is more pronounced with agitation and at night [1,2]. A low-grade fever may be present, but is not required for the diagnosis, the child will not typically have drooling or dysphagia (if this is present consider epiglottitis) [1-3]. Parents will often be concerned/alarmed by the barking cough sounds.

As with most viral infections, croup is a self-limiting illness and most management is supportive, improvement should be noted within 2-7 days [1,6,7].

The diagnosis of croup is a clinical one of the child meeting the clinical picture outlined above and ruling out other causes with history and physical [1-3]. A radiograph is not needed to diagnose croup however if obtained due to uncertainty, will often show a narrowing of the glottic and subglottic areas in a classic steeple sign [3]. Whereas epiglottitis will show a thumb sign [9].

Picture taken from: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/541980136386136007/

Picture taken from: https://kidshealth.org/Nemours/en/parents/az-croup.html

Workup of the Patient…

You remember some clinical decision aids for croup management… So, you employ the Westley Scoring System for Croup Severity [10]. As our child has a normal LOC, no cyanosis, stridor with agitation, mildly decreased air entry, and moderate retractions. They receive a Westley Score of 4 = moderate croup.


Mild </= 2

Moderate = 3-7

Severe = >/=8

Picture taken from: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/image/print?imageKey=PEDS%2F100744&topicKey=PEDS%2F6004&rank=1~60&source=see_link&search=croup&utdPopup=true

Based on this you pull out a trusted croup decision aid guide [1,11]:

Taken from: https://cps.ca/documents/position/acute-management-of-croup

In summary:

Mild croup, children will be given oral dexamethasone classically the dose is 0.6 mg/kg of body weight, however literature has shown equal effectiveness with 0.3 mg/kg, therefore some practitioners may opt for this lower in patients with moderate or mild croup [1,11,12]. Parents will be educated, and the child will be discharged home [1,11].

Moderate croup, the child will be given the same dose of dexamethasone and will be observed for 4 hours for improvement and sent home if symptoms have improved [1,11].

Severe croup, the child will be given blow-by O2 if cyanosis present, racemic epinephrine 2.25% (0.5 ml in 2.5 ml of normal saline) OR L-epinephrine 1:1000 5 mL, and the same dose of dexamethasone as above [1,11]. They will be observed for 2 hours and either sent home or admitted based on response [1,11].

Of note… previously aerosolized racemic epinephrine or L-epinephrine was given, however to reduce aerosolized treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic some emergency departments have received special authorization to give a puffer with epinephrine which was previously only approved in the US.


Case Conclusion

As our child had moderate croup and weighs 10.2 kg, they were given 0.3 mg/kg of dexamethasone which was 3.6 mg. We also performed a viral swab, which returns negative for COVID-19, but positive for parainfluenza virus, re-enforcing your diagnosis of croup. They were observed in the ED and quickly improved with no more increased work of breathing, and no stridor at rest. As such they were discharged to the care of their parents, and the parents’ received education on supportive management and indications to re-seek medical care. In fact, the SJRH ED has a handy parent information sheet that you give to the mother, which she is very appreciative of.


  1. Ortiz-Alvarez O, Canadian Pediatric Society, Acute Care Committee. Acute management of croup in the emergency department. J Paediatr Child Health. 2017;22(3):166-9. https://cps.ca/documents/position/acute-management-of-croup#ref1
  2. Sizar O, Carr B. Croup. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431070/
  3. Smith DK, McDermott AJ, Sullivan JF. Croup: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. 2018;97(9):575-80. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2018/0501/p575.html
  4. Tibballs J, Watson T. Symptoms and signs differentiating croup and epiglottitis. J Paediatr Child Health. 2011;47(3):77-82. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21091577/
  5. Rihkanen H, Rönkkö E, Nieminen T, et al. Respiratory viruses in laryngeal croup of young children. J Pediatr 2008;152(5):661–5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18410770/
  6. Rosychuk RJ, Klassen TP, Metes D, Voaklander DC, Senthilselvan A, Rowe BH. Croup presentations to emergency departments in Alberta, Canada: A large population-based study. Pediatr Pulmonol 2010;45(1):83–91. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19953656/
  1. Johnson DW. Croup. BMJ Clin Evid. 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25263284/
  2. Bjornson CL, Johnson DW. Croup in children. CMAJ. 2013;185(15):1317-23. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/185/15/1317
  3. Takata, Fujikawa, Goto. Thumb sign: acute epiglottitis. BMJ Case Rep. 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4904439/
  4. Yang WC, Lee J, Chen CY, Chang YJ, Wu HP. Westley score and clinical factors in predicting the outcome of croup in the pediatric emergency department. Pediatr Pulmonol. 2017;52(10):1329-34. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28556543/
  5. Toward Optimized Practice. Diagnosis and Management of Croup. Clinical Practice Guideline, January 2008. www.topalbertadoctors.org/download/252/croup_guideline.pdf.
  6. Geelhoed GC, Macdonald WB. Oral dexamethasone in the treatment of croup: 0.15 mg/kg versus 0.3 mg/kg versus 0.6 mg/kg. Pediatr Pulmonol. 1995;20(6):362-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8649915



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