Children with Breathing Difficulties

Authored by Dr Colin Tidy, 17 Jun 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Prof Cathy Jackson, 17 Jun 2017

Children often have coughs and colds which are usually harmless and get better quickly. Children can sometimes also have more serious breathing problems that need urgent treatment.

Many breathing (respiratory) difficulties are caused by infections but there are other causes too. The main causes of breathing difficulties include:

  • Viral infections.
  • Bacterial infections.
  • Asthma.
  • Allergies.
  • Passive smoking (exposure to cigarette smoke).
  • Exposure to other harmful gases (for example, really bad pollution).
  • Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or any small object.
  • A genetic condition such as cystic fibrosis.

When should you get medical advice and treatment?

Many children's coughs and breathing (respiratory) problems get better after about 10 days, sometimes much sooner. You should take your child to the doctor if they:

  • Seem to be getting much more unwell.
  • Have any symptom that won't go away.
  • Have problems feeding and drinking.
  • Have signs of becoming very dry (dehydrated) such as a very dry tongue.
  • Are coughing up mucus that is dark brown or bloody.
  • Are becoming more breathless.
  • Already have a diagnosed lung condition such as asthma.
  • Have any condition that reduces their defence against infection (weak immune system).

Babies and young children can become very unwell very quickly so it is even more important to keep a close eye on them and get medical advice if you have any concerns.

Further reading and references

So, for about a month now, every time I take a breath, and especially walking outside in the cold (I live in Nova Scotia), I feel like someone has scrubbed the inside of my lungs with a brillo pad. I...

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