My child is a noisy breather – what could it mean?

Babies and little children are loud and noisy; it’s a fact. While this is completely normal, when it comes to breathing, noisy can be disconcerting and sometimes a sign of something more serious going on.

Different types of noisy breathing

When you’re a parent (especially a new one!) it’s not uncommon to analyse every sound and movement your child does or doesn’t make. Noisy breathing can be a cause for concern, as it generally means there’s a blockage of the air passages somewhere creating abnormal airflow. Essentially there are four different types:

1. Stertor – a low-pitched snuffly noise that sounds like nasal congestion. This can often be accompanied by rattly breathing (a wet sounding noise).

2. Snoring – occurs when the child is in a deep sleep, which is made in the nose or back of the throat.

3. Stridor – an inhalation noise that’s typically high-pitched and caused by a blockage of the upper airways in or just below the voice box.

4. Wheezing – a high-pitched noise that occurs on exhalation caused by a narrowing, spasm or obstruction of the lower airways in the lungs.

Common causes of noisy breathing

Noisy breathing in children can be caused by a number of things – some completely harmless and nothing to panic about, while others are more life threatening. The most common causes include:

  • Colds and other respiratory infections – such as the common cold, croup, flu, bronchiolitis, whooping cough and pneumonia
  • Asthma – asthma affects one in every nine or ten Australian children and sounds like a wheeze
  • Allergies – brought on by dust mites, animal fur, pollen and other substances
  • Sleep apnoea – where breathing pauses frequently during sleep for at least 10 seconds each time
  • Objects stuck in the windpipe – small items might have been accidentally inhaled into the windpipe
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux – when the contents and acid from the tummy flow backwards and up into the throat and mouth
  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids – often a reason for ongoing snoring in kids
  • Genetic diseases – conditions such as cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy can affect the lungs or ability to breathe
  • Heart conditions – can cause fluid to collect in the lungs
  • Structural defects – such as a deviated nasal septum where the two nostrils are divided unequally
Child using asthma inhaler - feature

When should you be concerned?

While noisy breathing can occur quite frequently for various reasons and not be a cause for too much worry, it’s never normal for a child to experience breathing difficulties for long periods of time. Indicators that something more serious is to blame than a stuffy nose are:

  • An increasing effort to breathe (such as a stridor)
  • Weight loss or poor weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Flaring of the nose
  • Pulling in of the skin between or under the ribs or at the collar bone

If you’re concerned about your child’s breathing, it’s best to visit your doctor for a diagnosis and advise them of all the details around the breathing issues, including any family history of asthma or other conditions. A recording of your child’s breathing is also great for assessment (if possible).

When it’s really serious

Other more severe symptoms accompanying noisy breathing in a child include:

  • Lips, face or hands turning blue
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Drooling (not associated with teething)
  • Appearing lethargic or tired
  • Any other sudden changes in your child’s normal breathing patterns

In the event your child experiences any of the above symptoms, please seek urgent medical attention to be absolutely safe.

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