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Childhood breathing problems – causes and treatments

Asthma in children

Asthma in children is one of the most common causes of childhood breathing problems. It is caused by overly sensitive airways that become inflamed and narrow and produce excess mucus. Asthma can run in families or be triggered by allergies. Asthma in children causes symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and rapid, noisy breathing.


Asthma in children is usually treated with drugs called beta2 agonists given via an inhaler or through a mask. Some children also need steroid tablets to reduce the inflammation in their airways and physiotherapy can be helpful for children with significant breathing problems. Asthma in children can ease and even disappear as they grow into teenagers – for others it will be a lifelong health condition.


Sleep apnoea

Obstructive sleep apnoea – when the airway collapses – can cause breathing problems during sleep. Breathing can stop sometimes for up to 10 seconds. To diagnose sleep apnoea, your child may need to visit a specialist sleep clinic overnight so that their breathing patterns can be observed.


Central apnoea – where the brain fails to send the signal to breathe – is most common in babies younger than 1 year, particularly those born early. Breathing problems can become so severe that some babies may stop breathing for up to 20 seconds and may even turn blue. Diagnosis involves physical examination and monitoring of blood oxygen, breathing and heart rate. Severe sleep apnoea can be life-threatening, so your doctor may refer your baby to a sleep clinic or apnoea specialist.


Breathing problems caused by sleep apnoea can be treated with CPAP – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. This is created by a continuous flow of air given via a mask while your baby sleeps. If there is an obstruction, your baby may need nasal prongs or surgery to clear the airway.


Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition involving abnormally thick mucus in the lungs, causing breathing problems and infections. CF cannot be cured, but treating infections can help prevent lung damage and physiotherapy can help to clear the mucus.


Other breathing problems in children include:

  • Croup – a viral infection of the voice box with a characteristic barking cough. Croup will usually get better by itself, but if breathing problems are severe, you may need to go to hospital.

  • Bronchiolitis – a viral chest infection that causes a cough and breathing problems in babies that can force the ribs to be sucked in as your baby breathes. Bronchiolitis will usually clear up on its own, but your baby might have to be in hospital for a while to get help with breathing or feeding.

  • Respiratory distress – your child needs to work harder to breathe. Respiratory distress can happen with many breathing problems, such as asthma, bronchiolitis, cystic fibrosis, or other conditions such as enlarged tonsils, food allergies, meningitis or measles. Respiratory distress is treated with immediate respiratory support – oxygen, medication or physical help.

  • Tracheomalacia – ‘floppiness’ of the trachea. This may not require treatment, but if it causes severe breathing problems, CPAP or an operation can help.

  • Other breathing problems - lung infections (e.g. pneumonia), sleep disordered breathing and respiratory paralysis all need specialist treatment.


Emergency breathing problems, such as severe attacks of asthma in children may require a visit to Accident and Emergency. General care is available through your GP and within the NHS system but the private sector offers a range of specialists if you have private medical insurance, or if you wish your child to have individual assessments or treatments not readily or rapidly available in the public sector.