Respiratory Distress in Children: Symptoms, What to Do and When to See a Doctor

Respiratory Distress
Nina’s daughter, Raina, would find it difficult to breathe normally and frequently suffered from ear infections, sinus problems, colds and upper respiratory problems. Her parents tried all sorts of things such as breathing exercises and using home remedies but nothing worked. During a recent annual check-up at her preschool, the physician noticed Raina’s laboured breathing and referred her to a pulmonologist. When Raina was finally diagnosed and treated for childhood asthma, the change was near-instant.

Most babies and older children, like Raina, suffer from several mild infections of the respiratory system each year. These problems may have many causes, such as the following:

Viral infections

Viral infections cause most upper respiratory infections. Sore throats, colds, croup and influenza (flu) are common viral illnesses in babies and older children. These infections are usually mild and go away in about 10 days but they can sometimes be severe.

Bacterial infections

The most common sites for bacterial infections in the upper respiratory system are the sinuses and throat.

  • A sinus infection is an example of an upper respiratory bacterial infection
  • Bacterial pneumonia may follow a viral illness as a secondary infection or appear as the first sign of a lower respiratory infection
  • In babies and small children, the first sign of infection is usually irritability, decreased activity and poor feeding
  • Tuberculosis is a less common bacterial infection of the lower respiratory system

Allergies

Allergies are a common cause of respiratory problems. Allergy symptoms in children include:

  • Clear, runny nose or a stuffy nose. Children often rub their noses by pushing the tip upward with the palm, which is known as an allergic salute
  • Sneezing and watery eyes
  • Irritability and loss of appetite

Asthma

Babies and small children usually do not have asthma. But the number of new cases of asthma increases with age.

  • In babies and small children, hacking cough may be the only symptom of mild asthma
  • If asthma worsens, symptoms may include wheezing and shortness of breath, especially after exercising or at night
  • In severe asthma, difficulty breathing (using the chest, neck or abdominal muscles to breathe) and wheezing are common symptoms
  • Allergies and asthma often occur together.

Other causes

Besides asthma, allergies and infection, other possible causes of respiratory problems in children include:

  • Exposure to cigarette smoke. Tobacco smoke impairs lung growth and development. Children who are exposed to tobacco smoke, even before birth (prenatal), are more likely to have asthma and other respiratory problems
  • Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as a piece of a balloon, food or a small toy
  • Genetic problems that have been present from birth, such as cystic fibrosis

 

Babies and children younger than three years may have more symptoms with respiratory problems than older children, and they may become more ill. For this reason, younger children need to be monitored more closely. The type and severity of the symptoms help determine whether the child needs to see a doctor.

When to Call the Doctor

Seek immediate medical help if your child:

  • Shows signs of respiratory distress
  • Has a fever
  • Oral temperature is more than 102 F for three days or more than 104 F, if older than four years
  • Has a cough and phlegm or nasal discharge is thick and yellow-green coloured

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