Breathing Problems in Children

For children of 12 and over, see charts 17 and 18

Breathing problems include noisy or rapid breathing and shortness of breath. Shortness of breath may not be obvious because a child may simply avoid exertion. A child with severe difficulty breathing needs urgent hospital treatment. Breathing problems that occur suddenly also need immediate attention.

  • How long has your child had breathing problems?

    • Started suddenly a few minutes ago

      Is it possible that your child is choking on food or a small object?

      • Possible
        • Possible cause An inhaled foreign body may be preventing your child from breathing properly.

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Unlikely

        Are any of the danger signs listed in the box above present?

        • Danger signs present
          • Possible cause Your child may have a serious respiratory problem.

            Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

        • No danger signs

          How old is your child?

          • Under 6 months
            • Possible cause The cause of these symptoms could be a serious lung infection such as bronchiolitis.

              Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

          • 6 months or over

            Does your child have any of the following symptoms?

            • Noisy breathing
              • Possible cause These symptoms may be due to croup.

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Barking cough
              • Possible cause These symptoms may be due to croup.

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Shortness of breath

              Does your child have a fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above?

              • Fever
                • Possible cause A lung infection, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, could be the cause.

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • No fever

                Does your child suffer from repeated episodes of any of the following symptoms?

                • Wheezing
                  • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

                • Coughing at night
                  • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

                • Coughing after exercise
                  • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

                • Coughing after going out in the cold
                  • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

                • None of the above
                  • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your child’s breathing problems from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

            • None of the above

              Does your child suffer from repeated episodes of any of the following symptoms?

              • Wheezing
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • Coughing at night
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • Coughing after exercise
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • Coughing after going out in the cold
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • None of the above
                • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your child’s breathing problems from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

    • Started more than a few minutes ago

      Are any of the danger signs listed in the box above present?

      • Danger signs present
        • Possible cause Your child may have a serious respiratory problem.

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • No danger signs

        How old is your child?

        • Under 6 months
          • Possible cause The cause of these symptoms could be a serious lung infection such as bronchiolitis.

            Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

        • 6 months or over

          Does your child have any of the following symptoms?

          • Noisy breathing
            • Possible cause These symptoms may be due to croup.

              Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

          • Barking cough
            • Possible cause These symptoms may be due to croup.

              Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

          • Shortness of breath

            Does your child have a fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above?

            • Fever
              • Possible cause A lung infection, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, could be the cause.

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • No fever

              Does your child suffer from repeated episodes of any of the following symptoms?

              • Wheezing
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • Coughing at night
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • Coughing after exercise
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • Coughing after going out in the cold
                • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

              • None of the above
                • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your child’s breathing problems from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

          • None of the above

            Does your child suffer from repeated episodes of any of the following symptoms?

            • Wheezing
              • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Coughing at night
              • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Coughing after exercise
              • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Coughing after going out in the cold
              • Possible cause Your child may have developed asthma (see Asthma in children).

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • None of the above
              • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your child’s breathing problems from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance if your child’s breathing rate is excessively rapid (see Checking your child’s breathing rate) or if breathing problems are accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • Bluish lips or tongue.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Inability to swallow, talk, or produce sounds.

Checking your child’s breathing rate

A child whose breathing is unusually rapid when at rest or asleep may need medical attention. Check your child’s breathing by counting the number of breaths he or she takes in one minute with your hand on his or her chest or back to feel the breaths. The normal breathing rate of a young baby is faster than that of an older child. Compare your child’s breathing rate with the maximum rate for his or her age shown in the table.

Assessment of your child’s breathing

Your child should be at rest and not crying when you check his or her breathing rate. Place your hand on his or her chest or back to help you to count the breaths.

Age Breathing rate
Under 2 months Maximum of 60 breaths a minute
2–11 months Maximum of 50 breaths a minute
1–5 years Maximum of 40 breaths a minute
Over 5 years Maximum of 30 breaths a minute

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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