Is your child a noisy breather? Find out why – and what to do about it.
Parents’ ears are uniquely tuned to the noises their child makes, and few sounds are as concerning as a child who’s breathing is or becomes noisy. Here are some basics on noisy breathing that can help you figure out if your child needs an appointment with a pediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or if your child needs more immediate medical attention.
Typical Noisy Breathing Sounds:
Stertor is low-pitched and sounds like snoring or like nasal congestion experienced with a cold. This noise is created in the nose or the back of the throat.
Stridor is a higher-pitched noise that occurs with obstruction in or just below the voice box. Stridor can happen when a child inhales or exhales, or both. Listening to the part of the breathing cycle when the stridor occurs helps the doctor to determine the type of problem.
Wheezing is a high-pitched noise that occurs only when breathing out. Usually, wheezing is due to a spasm, narrowing or obstruction of the smaller airways in the lungs.
All of these sounds are made by something causing narrowing in part of the airway. Several different conditions can cause this narrowing, and each of these conditions has a different treatment.
A viral or bacterial upper respiratory infection can be treated with supportive care or, in some cases, with medications like steroids or antibiotics to help reduce congestion and inflammation.
Floppy tissue in the voicebox that partially obstructs the airway (called “laryngomalacia”) is the most common problem that causes noisy breathing in infants, and it usually improves with age. In rare cases, surgery may be necessary.
Malformed airways may be present at birth or can develop after an illness or trauma to the airway. This type of problem may be treated with supportive care or might be treated with surgical procedures in more severe cases.
An abnormal blockage in the airway due to scarring, swelling or a growth is typically treated with surgery.
A spasm of the airway caused by asthma or environmental irritants is typically managed with medications and lifestyle changes.
Paralyzed vocal cords might be present at birth or develop later in life. Treatment of this problem depends on cause and severity of symptoms.
Dysfunction of the vocal cords can cause symptoms that can be mistaken for asthma, and is more common in young athletes. This issue can be treated with a combination of special breathing exercises and/ or medication.
Diseases which cause growths on the vocal cords may be treated with surgery or medication.
Children with more severe airway issues tend to be irritable, have trouble eating, and may experience either weight loss or poor weight gain. These are all reasons to make an appointment with your pediatrician immediately.
Seek Medical Evaluation or Go to the Emergency Room Immediately If Your Child Has Noisy Breathing AND Any of the Following Symptoms:
Pauses in breathing
A color change of the skin (particularly if the lips, face or hands are turning blue)
Pulling in of the skin at the collar bone, between the ribs, or under the ribs
Meredith N. Merz Lind, MD, is a member of the Department of Otolaryngology at Nationwide Children's Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology at The Ohio State University.
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