Loud Breathing in Teenagers

Medical exam
Doctor listening to a teenager's breathing with a stethoscope. (Image: AlexRaths/iStock/Getty Images)

Although some parents may think that loud breathing in teenagers is nothing more than an attempt to get attention or cause laughs, there may be more to it than meets the ear. Loud breathing could arise from normal causes, but it could also be a sign of serious, ongoing health issues. Learning the facts about heavy respiration in teenagers, including common causes and symptoms, can help you decide if your teen needs to see a doctor.

The Facts

During the respiratory process, your teenager inhales oxygen-rich air that travels through the breathing passages to the tiny air sacs -- called alveoli -- in the lungs. The oxygen switches places with carbon dioxide, which moves out of the body during each exhalation. Normally, this process takes place with very little sound, but sometimes it increases in volume. Loud breathing often occurs temporarily during exercise, when an adolescent forcibly pushes air in and out of his lungs to meet an increased need for oxygen. Ongoing loud breathing when your teenager is at rest generally occurs when the breathing passages narrow or become obstructed as a result of inflammation or enlarged tissue.

Causes

Common causes of loud breathing in teenagers include asthma, allergies and the common cold. According to Dr. David Naimi, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Washington and contributing author for the book “Asthma, Health and Society,” doctors diagnose asthma -- a chronic health condition that involves ongoing inflammation or swelling of the breathing tubes -- in about 15 percent of all teenagers. Allergies may arise seasonally or could be year-round, depending upon whether your teenager is allergic to perennial allergens such as pet hair, dust mite debris and mold. Although the common cold occurs less frequently in adolescents than in younger children, it can still hamper teenagers’ breathing habits, especially if they have other health conditions such as nasal polyps or enlarged tonsils that also impinge upon their breathing.

Symptoms

Asthma-linked loud breathing may occur with various other signs, including labored breathing, coughing, struggling for breath, wheezing -- a whistling sound emanating from the lungs during breathing -- and tightness in the chest. These signs may occur on a daily basis or they could develop at certain times, such as when your teenager has a cold or is exercising. Signs of allergies and upper respiratory illnesses include sneezing, a runny nose and nasal congestion, which occurs when the nasal tissues and blood vessels become swollen.

Considerations

If you notice loud breathing in a teenager with a diagnosed case of asthma, then the problem may be due to poorly controlled asthma. According to Naimi, asthma management challenges particular to the adolescent population include risk taking, body image issues, ongoing mood shifts and identity development. All of these factors could contribute to a teenager’s decision to stop taking preventative asthma medication, which often results in an asthma flare.

Warning

Loud breathing in teenagers that occurs only during sleep could be a sign of a potentially serious but often overlooked health condition known as sleep apnea, which sometimes develops in overweight adolescents and is characterized by temporary lapses in breathing that can occur numerous times each night. The lack of oxygen may cause daytime mood swings and lead to performance problems in school and extracurricular activities. According to Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., sleep specialist and coauthor of “A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep,” adolescent sleep apnea reflects symptoms common in adults with this disorder, including snoring, mouth breathing and excessive daytime sleepiness.

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