Breathing Problems in Children: Causes, Signs and Treatment

Breathing Problems in Children

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Mahesh Patil (Paediatrician)
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Breathing problems can manifest in a child in a variety of ways and may not be immediately evident at first. He could seem short of breath and may be attributed to having played a lot or exerted a lot. A child’s trouble in breathing might also be due to anxiety or even a serious respiratory issue. In any case, it is best to understand what the reason behind the breathing problem is and what can be done about it.

Causes of Breathing Problems in Kids

Breathlessness in children can be caused by a number of reasons. Most of which are –

  • Reduced levels of oxygen at high altitudes
  • Cold and other infections causing nasal congestion
  • Infection or foreign body in airways or lungs
  • Allergic reactions to dust or other particles
  • Anxiety or obesity
  • Fever or exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Choking on a food item or any other object
  • Low haemoglobin levels in the blood
  • Congenital heart diseases.
  • Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance
  • general physical weakness or hypoglycemia due to inadequate nutrition

Signs and Symptoms of Breathing Difficulty in Children

  • Bluish tinge on the skin, lips or nails of the child
  • Hoarseness in the voice
  • Congestion in the nose or the chest
  • Rapid and raspy short breaths
  • Flaring of nostrils
  • Grunting sounds
  • Increased ribs visibility while breathing
  • Wheezing sounds while coughing
  • High fever
  • Exercise intolerance or decreased activity in general

Treatment for Breathing Problems in a Child 

  • Rest or relaxation or decreasing activity reduces breathing difficulty.
  • If the child can follow, ask him to take short and shallow breaths.
  • Take the child into fresh air with plenty of oxygen.
  • Prevent the body from dehydration and drink as much water as possible, in small quantities, as often as possible.
  • Remove tight clothing, make the child sit or lie on their side with legs curled onto the belly.
  • Give steam or nebulisation or cough syrup if available to ensure that the mucus is moist and can be easily coughed up.
  • Clear nose or mouth of mucus with mucus sucker if available.
  • In case of high fever, administer Paracetamol or Ibuprofen to bring it down.
  • Keep any kind of air pollutants such as smoke or dust away from the child.
  • Reassure your child they are fine and keep them away calm and comfortable.
  • If the condition gets severe, get them to a doctor as soon as possible.

How Can You Prevent Your Child From Getting Breathing Issues?

  • If your child suffers from breathing issues primarily as a result of various allergies, make sure the environment around your child is free from those allergens that could trigger a reaction. These may include keeping furry pets away, ensuring a dust-free environment, or avoid new foodstuff if not sure of food allergy in your child also making use of masks wherever you go.
  • In case any medication such as epinephrine or inhalation has been prescribed by a doctor, make sure your child takes the medication on time and keeps any emergency medication with him. Teach yourself and your child to administer epinephrine in an emergency.
  • Breathing issues can be combated with judicious rest. The clothing your child wears should be breathable and not too snug or tight, since that might get restrictive in breathing, too.
  • Anaemia, congenital heart disease should be ruled out by your paediatrician.
  • Avoid long periods of fasting or dehydration by regular feeds and plenty of fluid intake.

When to Consult a Doctor 

A doctor examining a little girl

If your child shows any of the following signs or symptoms, call up your medical professional immediately.

  • Bluish discolouration of skin, nails, tongue or lips
  • Intense chest pain, accompanied by coughing lots of blood
  • Fainting and drooling excessively
  • Swelling in the facial areas, tongue and throat
  • High pitched wheezing and not being able to speak
  • Presence of hives on the body
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irregular heartbeat accompanied by sweating

Respiratory Distress in Kids

When kids undergo respiratory distress, the major cause is a chronic health condition that needs to be examined at the earliest by a medical professional.


The causes could range across the following:

  • Suffering from acute asthma
  • Having congenital heart conditions
  • Extremely severe allergic reactions
  • Certain medical conditions of the lung
  • A severe infection in the lower or upper respiratory system of the child

Signs and Symptoms

Spotting the right signs of respiratory distress is the first step in addressing the problem.

  • Breathing rate is highly increased
  • Heart rate is increased beyond normal
  • Exercise or playing capacity decreased
  • Skin, lips, and nails have a bluish colour to them
  • Fingertips might be swollen
  • The skin texture is pale and grey
  • The child grunts every time he exhales
  • As the child breathes, the nostrils flare open to take more air
  • Every breath causes the chest to sink under the breastbone
  • Every breath the child takes sounds wheezy


Treating the respiratory condition of the child depends on what your child is suffering from. Some of the common treatments are:

1. Replacing the surfactant

Generally used as a treatment for lung conditions, this therapy helps replace the surfactant in a child’s lungs. The surfactant is a fluid-like substance that forms a coating inside of the lungs. This helps keep them open and allow normal breathing. Doctors keep administering surfactant to a point where the child’s lungs start producing it on its own.

2. Supportive breathing mechanism

In case your child cannot breathe properly, even while another treatment is going on, a doctor may recommend putting your child on breathing support. A tube with high-pressure air oxygen mixture attached to the nose reduces the child’s efforts to breathe or a breathing tube might be installed that connects directly to the child’s lungs and helps to breathe properly. This combined therapy helps combat respiratory distress in an accelerated manner and bring normalcy to the breathing of your child.

3. Therapy using various medicines

A number of medicines might be utilized in order to help your child return to a normal breathing state. These range from nasal sprays, to using acetaminophen, medicines that reduce cough and cold in your child; penicillin, decongestants, zinc to allow the lungs to breathe properly; corticosteroids, receptor blockers, leukotriene, antihistamines to prevent allergic reactions from being triggered, and even ophthalmic medications.

4. Therapy with the use of oxygen

When the breathing is short and insufficient, oxygen therapy might be administered to your child. This helps provide the required amount of oxygen without stressing the body so that the lungs can develop in their own time and the body continues to get the oxygen supply it requires.

5. Avoiding the presence of allergens

Most respiratory distress in the child with a history of allergy is directly triggered by the presence of an allergen. While undergoing treatment for the same, it is necessary to prevent any contact of such allergens from taking place. Your child should keep a distance from any household pets, dust mites that are present in the vicinity, pollens floating outside, or any other pollutants such as smokes or aerosols.


Preventing a child from having any respiratory issues begins right from the time you are pregnant and continues throughout the growth of the child. In the early stages of pregnancy, it is best to regularly visit your doctor and keep a check on any potential issues that might be present. Maintaining a good diet and having a healthy pregnancy prevents the child from developing any biological conditions or issues that could restrict breathing before or during delivery. Smoking and drinking during pregnancy is and has always been harmful.

As your child is growing up, ensure that he follows a proper diet and eats regularly. If your child is susceptible to certain allergic conditions, advise them to keep away from certain areas if they contain triggers. Instruct them to use masks or call you in case of an emergency. Make sure they stay away from dust mites, outer pollutants, to reduce the chances of triggering respiratory distress as much as possible.

Watching your child have a respiratory issue can be quite distressing for you. But seeing you in distress and worry can further cause your child to be anxious and fearful, leading to aggravation of what they are already going through. It is best to keep yourself informed of handy remedies and assure your child that what he’ll get better soon.

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