An inhaled steroid treatment can help children suffering from moderate croup, the hoarse, barking cough that sometimes signals breathing problems, according to a new study.

Previous studies have proven that the treatment can make a big difference for children with severe croup. The new work, conducted on patients at Children's Hospital of eastern Ontario, Canada, was an attempt to discover if the therapy would be effective in less severe cases.A team led by Dr. Terry Klassen of the University of Ottawa gave 27 children between the ages of three months and five years a placebo aerosol, while another 27 received aerosolized particles of the steroid budesonide, sold under the brand name Pulmicort by Astra Pharma.

The children who received the drug showed improvements in their conditions sooner and were less likely to be admitted into the hospital or to require other treatment, according to the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Nebulized budesonide leads to a prompt and important clinical improvement in children with mild-to-moderate croup who come to the emergency department," the research team said.

Doctors have been cautious about using steroid treatments in children because croup usually disappears without treatment and steroid therapy can have side effects. But the risk of side effects is believed to be lower with bude-son-ide than with other steroids.

The researchers set out to explore whether treating croup early might "reduce the severity of the clinical symptoms, prevent hospitalization or prolonged visits to the emergency department." They said "no adverse effects were noted in the budesonide group" and none of the drug recipients showed a deterioration in condition after receiving the drug.