Children are susceptible to illness, and respiratory problems are quite common – especially in those exposed to germs (e.g., in a daycare setting). The majority of respiratory ailments are not serious, but approximately one-third are the result of breathing disorders that require special treatment.
Upper & Lower Respiratory Infections
Respiratory infections experienced by children can be separated into those affecting the upper respiratory system (comprising the mouth, nose, throat and sinuses) and the lower respiratory system (the bronchial tubes and lungs). Generally speaking, lower respiratory infections tend to be more severe and are characterized by shortness of breath, wheezing and rapid breathing.
Upper respiratory infections include colds, flu, croup and sinusitis. They can usually be treated with a combination of medications, fluids and rest.
Lower respiratory infections include a number of breathing disorders, such as:
This is an extremely common childhood ailment, affecting nearly six percent of children under the age of five. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways triggered by an irritant (e.g., a virus, tobacco smoke or chemical) that causes the bronchi to contract and the mucus membranes to swell. This results in coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and increased heart rate.
There is no cure, but symptoms can be managed through a combination of long-term control drugs and rescue medications.
This infection of the bronchioles occurs when the airways in the lungs swell, hampering breathing. Most cases are caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), discussed below. It is most common in children younger than two. Symptoms include coughing; rapid, shallow breathing; wheezing; skin retractions around the neck and chest; flaring of the nostrils and fever.
Usually, bronchiolitis runs its course in 7-10 days and does not require medical treatment. Make sure your child receives plenty of rest and fluids, and treat any congestion with saline drops or over-the-counter medications.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
RSV is one of the most common lower respiratory tract illnesses. It is usually confined to children under the age of two. Symptoms are similar to those of the common cold and include coughing, runny nose, fever, wheezing, rapid breathing and skin retractions around the chest and neck. RSV can spread to the airways in the lungs and cause bronchiolitis. Fortunately, most cases are short lived, lasting only a few days. Treat it with home remedies as you would a cold.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation, swelling and fluid accumulation in the airways. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Symptoms include coughing, fever, rapid breathing, a crackling or grunting noise in the lungs and loss of appetite. Viral pneumonia can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications for fever, fluids and rest. Bacterial pneumonia requires antibiotics.
Pediatric Airway Conditions
Upper and lower respiratory tract infections are common in children, whose immune systems are still developing. Colds, flu, croup, sinusitis, bronchiolitis, asthma, and pneumonia all produce symptoms that make breathing difficult. These include stuffiness, shortness of breath, wheezing, and rapid breathing.
Reflux is another condition that affects children. Known as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), it occurs when stomach acids back up into the throat as the result of the esophageal sphincter muscle failing to close properly. Also known as silent reflux, the condition mimics gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), minus the painful heartburn. Symptoms include difficulty swallowing, sore throat, coughing, postnasal drip, and wheezing. Over the long term, it can lead to malnutrition and weight loss.
Additional conditions that cause airway problems in children include allergies, teething, and sleep apnea.
Diagnosing Pediatric Airway Conditions
Your child’s doctor will need to diagnose the condition responsible for the airway problem in order to treat it successfully. In addition to a physical examination and a review of your child’s medical history and current symptoms, diagnostic testing may be employed to help narrow the cause. Possible tests include x-rays, CT scans, MRI, laryngoscopy (an examination of the vocal cords with a tube-mounted camera), and bronchoscopy (checking the lungs and trachea using a similar device).
How are these conditions treated?
There is no single treatment plan for pediatric airway problems. With such a diverse array of possible causes, treatment will be based on the underlying condition and could involve anything from making dietary changes to medical and surgical solutions.