Children with Breathing Difficulties - Causes

What are the causes of breathing difficulties in children?

Lungs showing patch of pneumonia

The respiratory tract can be divided into:

  • The upper respiratory tract: nose, mouth, throat and voice box (larynx).
  • The lower respiratory tract: windpipe (trachea), bronchi and lungs.

Although respiratory infections are very common, not all breathing difficulties are caused by infections. The main causes of breathing difficulties in children include the following.

Viral infections

Viral infections cause most upper respiratory infections, including colds and sore throats. These infections are usually mild and get better quickly. Some viruses can cause severe symptoms which may need treatment in hospital. Examples of viral infections include bronchiolitis and croup.

Note: antibiotics do not kill viruses and so are not used to treat viral infections.

Bacterial infections

Bacterial infections, such as acute tonsillitis, are also very common in the upper respiratory tract. Bacterial infections in the lower respiratory tract, such as pneumonia, are much less common.

Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections but mild upper respiratory tract infections often don't need any antibiotic treatment.

Examples of more serious bacterial infection include epiglottitis and pneumonia.


Asthma can start at any age but most often starts during childhood. Symptoms may include wheezing and shortness of breath, which may particularly occur after exercise or at night. Severe asthma causes much more severe symptoms, including difficulty with breathing that may need urgent medical treatment.


Allergies are a common cause of breathing problems. They most often affect the upper respiratory tract and cause a clear discharge from the nose, sneezing and sore eyes. Allergies may also affect the lower respiratory tract and cause asthma symptoms.

Other causes

Other causes of breathing difficulties in children include:

  • Breathing in cigarette smoke.
  • Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as a small piece of food or any other object.
  • Long-term conditions that affect the respiratory tract, such as cystic fibrosis.

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Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
29402 (v1)
Last Checked:
17 June 2017
Next Review:
25 June 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.