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Noisy Breathing in Kids

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 makes a lot of noise when they breathe. 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 during both. When the stridor occurs helps the doctor to determine the type of problem.
  • Wheezing is a high-pitched noise that occurs only when a child breathes out. Usually, wheezing is due to a spasm, narrowing or obstruction of the smaller airways in the lungs.

No matter what the sound may be, all of them are caused by a narrowing 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 steroids, antibiotics or other medications to help reduce congestion and inflammation.
  • 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 surgical procedures.
  • An abnormal blockage in the airway due to scarring, swelling or a growth is typically treated via surgery.
  • Floppy tissue that obstructs the airway is a fairly common problem in infants, and it usually improves with age. In rare cases, surgery may be necessary.
  • 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.
  • Malfunctioning vocal cords, often mistaken for asthma, are more common in young elite 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)
  • Drooling
  • Pulling in of the skin at the collar bone, between the ribs, or under the ribs
  • Appearing lethargic or tired

Learn more about noisy breathing or request an appointment with an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.

Meredith Merz Lind, MD
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. She has clinical interests in general pediatric otolaryngology, head and neck and thyroid masses, obstructive sleep apnea and other airway problems, and disorders of the ears and nose. Her research interests include treatment of recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, obstructive sleep apnea, and nasal airway obstruction.

2 thoughts on “Noisy Breathing in Kids

  1. Edna Bryant on said:

    My newest grandson was born on June 14, 2015 and has been diagnosed with Tracheomalacia. We have read things on the internet, but, really have no clue as to what his prognosis may be and what treatments may be needed.. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated as we know that you cant believe everything you read on the internet.. Thank you

    1. HI Edna- This reply is from Dr. Lind ” It is difficult to diagnose tracheomalacia without performing a bronchoscopy procedure or special X-ray to look at the airway. There are other, more common problems, such as laryngomalacia, that also cause noisy breathing and can sometimes be confused with other diagnoses. In order to diagnose these types of problems, we would recommend an evaluation by a Pediatric Ear, Nose and Throat doctor who can accurately diagnose the reason for noisy breathing and can then let you know about treatment options and prognosis.”

      Meredith N. Merz Lind, M.D., FAAP, FACS

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