Dr Mark Rosenthal

MD MB ChB FRCP FRCPCH BSc

Consultant in Paediatric Respiratory Medicine

also specialist in Food Allergies & Disorders of Sleep

A | A | A

T: 0207 351 8832

E: s.harvey@rbht.nhs.uk

A:The Royal Brompton Hospital, London, SW3 6NP

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Noisy breathing is very common in children. It usually happens when there is some kind of blockage or narrowing of the airways. The most common cause of this is a cold, which will often cause snuffling or wheezing sounds. If it only happens occasionally, when your child has a blocked nose, then noisy breathing isn’t usually anything to worry about. However, if it happens often, isn’t linked to a cold, or sounds very bad then you should see a doctor. Noisy breathing can sometimes be a sign of something more serious in children.

Worried About My Child’s Noisy BreathingTypes of Noisy Breathing in Children

Noisy breathing comes in many different forms. The type of sound that your child is making can help to identify the possible causes of the problem so it can be useful to know the difference.

  • Wheezing: a high-pitched noise that usually happens when your child is breathing out. Children can wheeze when they have a respiratory or chest infection, but persistent wheezing or wheezing triggered by exercise can be a sign of asthma.
  • Stridor: a high-pitched noise that can happen when breathing in or out. It is caused by a blockage just below the voice box. In children, this is often due to an infection such as croup
  • Stertor: the most common type of noisy breathing in children, this is a low-pitched noise that comes from the nose or the back of the throat. It is often caused by a cold or upper respiratory tract infection.
  • Snoring: a low-pitched noise that happens when your child is sleeping. Snoring is rare in children when they don’t have a cold, so persistent snoring should be checked by a doctor. It could be a sign of a deviated septum (the partition between the nostrils) or sleep apnoea.
  • Heavy breathing: sometimes it is the breathing itself that is louder than usual. You might notice this when your child has a cold or respiratory infection. If your child is breathing very loudly or seems to be having trouble breathing (for example if it seems to take more effort than usual or their ribs are sucking in with each breath) then you should see a doctor as soon as possible. It could be a sign of a serious chest infection or a blockage in the airway.

Some kinds of noisy breathing can be a sign of a more serious health problem, so it is important not to ignore this symptom. You should also look for any other symptoms that could help to explain the cause, such as a fever or a runny nose, which would indicate a respiratory infection.

Treatment for Noisy Breathing

The most common cause of noisy breathing in children is an infection that has caused the airways to swell up and get narrower. As long as the symptoms are mild, this isn’t usually anything to worry about. However, if your child has a very high fever, difficulty breathing or other severe symptoms then you should seek medical advice. Additional support is sometimes required to help children to recover from respiratory infections such as pneumonia that are affecting the lower respiratory tract.

You should also talk to a doctor if your child is breathing noisily but doesn’t have any other symptoms of an infection. The doctor will be able to check for other possible causes, such as asthma, a deviated septum or anything else that is blocking or narrowing the airways. Sometimes these issues can be treated with medication. In a small number of cases there might be a structural problem that can be treated with surgery, such as enlarged tonsils or a deviated septum that is interfering with the passage of air.

Anything that could affect your child’s breathing should always be taken seriously, so if you can’t work out why your child’s breathing sounds the way it does or you’re feeling worried about it, then it is best to talk to a doctor. However, you should try not to feel too anxious. Although conditions such as asthma and sleep apnoea can be very serious if they aren’t managed properly, they can be treated very effectively. We can’t always cure a condition like asthma completely, but we can ensure that it doesn’t limit your child’s activities or cause any serious health problems.

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