Heavy breathing in kids

Updated April 17, 2017

Heavy breathing in children can be attributed to several conditions. Huffing and puffing could be related to a cold, allergies or asthma. Or, this could be a symptom of a more serious illness such as pneumonia or congestive heart failure. An adult should seek medical advice from her child’s paediatrician to rule out any severe conditions and to ensure that the youngster’s symptoms are effectively treated.


A child appears anxious when he experiences breathing difficulties. A parent might notice the child’s nostrils flaring and his ribcage becoming more visible with each heavy breath. The child might complain about not getting enough air. He could be inhaling and exhaling quickly through parted lips. The skin, mouth and tongue could have a bluish tint, or the youngster may appear unresponsive. Or, a parent may notice the heavy breathing as snoring at night.


A paediatrician is the first step in diagnosing and treating irregular breathing. She might send the child to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. A routine exam involves inspection of the nasal passages, tonsils and adenoids. The doctor listens with a stethoscope to bronchioles and alveoli, which are the tiny network of branches and air sacs. Sounds hold clues to the nature of the problem. For instance, a “Darth Vader” style of breathing could mean swollen tonsils.


The doctor may be able to determine the ailment upon listening to the child’s upper and lower airways. Or, he might use X-rays to obtain an image of the respiratory system. The physician may need to insert a telescope into the airways to perform a microlaryngoscopy and bronchoscopy. Another option is to extract fluid from the lungs for closer examination. If a child breathes heavily while asleep, he might be checked at a sleep apnoea clinic.

Possible Causes

A physician may rule that a simple cold is responsible for a child’s heavy breathing. Or, she may find an abscess in the voice box. Asthma in children occurs when breathing passages become swollen and blocked with mucus. Fluid build-up in the lungs could be caused by pneumonia or cystic fibrosis. Among the most severe causes of breathing irregularities are foreign objects in the airways and a paralysing condition known as Guillian-Barre syndrome.


Medical personnel use various treatments depending upon the diagnosis. Antibiotics are common for upper respiratory infections. Enlarged tonsils have to be surgically removed. Treating asthma requires the doctor and parents to identify the offending condition such as cigarette smoke, dust mites or allergies. Asthma sufferers often use inhalers. For the most serious cases of paediatric breathing difficulties, a doctor might have to insert a tube into the throat or even through the trachea via an incision to restore breathing.

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