Signs of respiratory failure in children

Signs of respiratory failure in children

One of the most common reasons why parents seek medical attention, especially with children between the age of 0 and 3 years, is changes in the breathing of the child. In most cases the reason for the “change” in question is not a serious condition of the lungs. We will give you practical advice how to recognise an actual shortness of breath in the child and what to do in the situation.

What does the term “respiratory failure” mean? Simply put, this is the inability of the lungs to maintain an adequate gas exchange, which manifests variously depending on the cause and the impacted area of the airways.

The number of illnesses which can cause the condition in question is not small at all. Here are some of the most common illnesses, which typically bring a child in a medical emergency cabinet:

Acute laryngitis or the so-called “barking” coughs. You can probably guess from the name that one of the main symptoms of the illness is the typical coughing that resembles dog’s barking. Its cause may have both infectious or non-infectious nature. It can be easily healed by a timely and adequate treatment, but it definitely requires medical assistance. What to expect and what to do?

Typically, the child goes to sleep and wakes up in the middle of the night or very early in the morning with the aforementioned coughing, very hampered (dyspnea) and rapid breathing. In most cases the body temperature is also increased, but not always.

What is the adequate behaviour in this case? First, try to stay calm. If you find your child with these symptoms, even if it is only the barking coughing, it is best to immediately seek medical assistance. Cool air helps relieve the symptoms and improves breathing, so you can:

  1. Contact your child’s doctor or seek immediate medical assistance.
  2. Meanwhile, if it is cold outside, bring the child out or on a balcony for a few minutes, or you can do a saline/corticosteroid inhalation before visiting a paediatrician.
  3. The condition is serious, so follow the specialists’ instructions promptly. If you are offered a hospital treatment, think well before denying the offer.

Acute bronchiolitis: a common illness, especially between the age of 0 and 2 years. It impacts the small branches of the lungs – bronchioles. It is confirmed by a doctor.

How it develops, how to recognise it and what to do when your child has it?

The main symptom is coughing, sometimes accompanied by a fever and a runny nose, but not always. Commonly, the child breathes rapidly. There is an unusual sinking in the areas above and below the breastbone (sternum), between the ribs, in the lower part of the neck. Wheezing can be heard coming from the chest. In babies, you may even notice bobbing of the head and nose flaring during breathing.

What to do?

  1. Contact your child’s paediatrician or seek immediate medical assistance.
  2. Keep the child well hydrated, provide liquids, breast or formula milk.
  3. Quite often, the clinical condition of the little one does not correlate with its mood and tone. We often see children with pronounced signs of respiratory failure being physically active, smiling and playing. Do not be deceived that this is a condition that can be easily disregarded.
  4. We do not recommend to self-administer treatment, you should instead seek medical assistance and do not turn down offered hospital treatment. Sometimes, especially in small children, a prolonged treatment is needed and this is not something that can be done at home.

Foreign body: A huge problem is the aspiration of a foreign body. This is a case of emergency that requires immediate medical assistance. Depending on the size, shape and texture, when the item enters the respiratory tract, it may cause serious and even fatal consequences for the patient.

When should we suspect that there is a foreign object in the airways of our child and what to do in such cases?

It is most commonly observed in the early years of the child’s development, when it is exploring the world through putting all sorts of objects in its mouth. Although this is a natural behaviour, parents should strictly monitor what gets in the baby’s mouth. When a foreign body enters the airways, the child starts coughing.

The coughs aim to throw out the item, but this does not always happen. This is why we recommend:

  1. Make sure the child does not have access to small items, nuts, bits of food, etc.
  2. Children should eat in a seated position and when calm, because we most commonly see the above mentioned condition when children eat while playing, running or jumping around.
  3. If you suspect aspiration of a foreign body, immediately contact your paediatrician, follow their instructions, ensure the child is calm and limit its movements, transport them to an emergency unit.
  4. Do not try to take out the object with your hand, do not sway the child, and do not pat it on the body.
  5. Stay calm.

These are the top three reasons for respiratory failure in children. Of course, such symptoms may also occur with other conditions, which are more rare and specific.

Generally: If the breathing of your child changes – it becomes rapid, as if done only with the belly, its head is swaying, its nose is flaring; if you notice that the areas above or below the breastbone or between the ribs are sinking in; if you suspect that it is choking on a foreign object: seek immediate medical assistance.

Thankfully, all three conditions can be treated successfully, but they require quick and timely measures.

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