How to know when noisy breathing in kids is a sign of something more serious

Babies and little children are loud and noisy, it’s a fact. While this is completely normal, when it comes to breathing, noisy is not always a good thing and can be a sign of something more serious. 

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 is often 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. 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.

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 – 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
Wheezing can be a sign of asthma, but not always

When should you be concerned

While noisy breathing can occur quite frequently for various reasons and not be 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 are concerned 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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