Children are susceptible to illness, and respiratory problems are quite common – especially in those exposed to germs (e.g., in a daycare setting). The majority of respiratory ailments are not serious, but approximately one-third are the result of breathing disorders that require special treatment.

Upper & Lower Respiratory Infections

breathing disorders

Respiratory infections that affect children can be separated into those affecting the upper respiratory system (comprising the mouth, nose, throat and sinuses) and the lower respiratory system (the bronchial tubes and lungs). Generally speaking, lower respiratory infections tend to be more severe and are characterized by shortness of breath, wheezing and rapid breathing.

Upper respiratory infections include colds, flu, croup and sinusitis. They can usually be treated with a combination of medications, fluids and rest.

Lower respiratory infections include a number of breathing disorders, such as:

  • Asthma. This is an extremely common childhood ailment, affecting nearly 6% of children under the age of 5. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways triggered by an irritant (e.g., a virus, tobacco smoke, chemical) that causes the bronchi to contract and the mucus membranes to swell. This results in coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and increased heart rate. There is no cure, but symptoms can be managed through with a combination of long-term control drugs and rescue medications.
  • Bronchiolitis. This infection of the bronchioles occurs when the airways in the lungs swell, hampering breathing. Most cases are caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), discussed below. It is most common in children younger than 2. Symptoms include coughing; rapid, shallow breathing; wheezing; skin retractions around the neck and chest; flaring of the nostrils; and fever. Usually, bronchiolitis runs its course in 7-10 days and does not require medical treatment. Make sure your child receives plenty of rest and fluids, and treat any congestion with saline drops or over-the-counter medications.
  • Respiratory Synctial Virus (RSV). RSV is one of the most common lower respiratory tract illnesses. It is usually confined to children under the age of 2. Symptoms are similar to that of the common cold and include coughing, runny nose, fever, wheezing, rapid breathing and skin retractions around the chest and neck. RSV can spread to the airways in the lungs and cause bronchiolitis. Fortunately, most cases are short lived, lasting only a few days. Treat it with home remedies as you would a cold.
  • Pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation, swelling and fluid accumulation in the airways. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Symptoms include coughing, fever, rapid breathing, a crackling or grunting noise in the lungs and loss of appetite. Viral pneumonia can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications for fever, fluids and rest. Bacterial pneumonia requires antibiotics.