For many parents, watching a child experience breathing problems seems worse than having to go through it themselves. Heavy breathing occurs in children of all ages and can be caused by many different health conditions. Learn the facts about heavy breathing in kids, including common causes and symptoms, so you can more quickly identify the times when your child’s breathing problems call for medical attention.
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Heavy breathing can arise from a variety of health conditions, many of which involve inflammation of your child’s respiratory system. Croup leads to swelling around your child’s vocal cords and windpipe, while bronchitis causes inflammation of bronchii, the large breathing tubes in your child’s lungs. Pneumonia -- an infection of the lungs -- is characterized by the presence of pus and fluid in your child’s alveoli, the small air sacs in the lungs. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes swelling in multiple parts of your child’s airways. According to 2008 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately seven million children in the U.S. have asthma.
Heavy or labored breathing is usually accompanied by other signs of breathing problems. Other symptoms your child may demonstrate include short or rapid breathing, chest tightness and coughing; a distinctive whistle-like sound, or wheezing, could also emanate from your child’s throat. Cold-like symptoms, including a fever, chills, sore throat or runny nose may also accompany heavy breathing resulting from a secondary infection, like bronchitis. Depending upon the severity of the symptoms, your child may panic, which is often revealed by flared nostrils, fearful eyes and sudden or quick movements.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Loud or heavy breathing that occurs only at night may be an indication that your child has obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. Often accompanied by snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness, this serious condition develops when your child stops breathing during sleep -- generally for more than 10 seconds at a time. OSA occurs as a result of a physical obstruction that reduces airflow. According to Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Sleep Disorders Center and co-author of “A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep,” most cases of OSA in children result from enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
Chronic or severe heavy breathing could indicate a medical emergency. If your child seems to be struggling to breathe or you become concerned about her ability to breathe, take her to an emergency room immediately. Loss of oxygen is a potentially life-threatening condition that could result in brain damage and death and requires immediate medical attention. If your child’s heavy breathing arises from asthma, she’ll typically need to manage her symptoms with a long-term medication; in the event that your child develops future asthma flares, she should always have access to a rescue medication, such as albuterol, which can ameliorate the severity of heavy breathing and other asthma symptoms.
Take your child’s heavy breathing seriously. If it occurs after another illness, such as a cold or the flu, then it could easily be a secondary infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. In this case, your child’s body is already weak from fighting the initial illness and will most likely have difficulty fending off this secondary infection. Arrange a prompt visit to your child’s pediatrician if he develops heavy breathing or any other respiratory problems immediately after another illness. Depending upon the cause and severity of the secondary infection, your child may require medication, such as antibiotics, or hospitalization.
- Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford: Acute Bronchitis
- UNICEF: Pneumonia -- The Forgotten Killer of Children (pdf)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children -- National Health Interview Survey, 2008
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: How Is Asthma Treated and Controlled?
- “A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep”; Jodi Mindell Ph.D. & Dr. Judith Owens; 2009