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Key points about stridor in children
- Stridor is a noisy or high-pitched sound with breathing.
- It is usually caused by a blockage or narrowing in your child’s upper airway.
- Some common causes of stridor in children are infections and defects in the child’s nose, throat, larynx or trachea that the child was born with.
- The sound of stridor depends on where the blockage is in the upper respiratory tract.
- Stridor is usually diagnosed based on health history and a physical exam.
- The child may need a hospital stay and emergency surgery, depending on how severe the stridor is.
- If left untreated, stridor can block the child’s airway. This can be life-threatening or even cause death.
Stridor can be caused by many things. These are some of the more common causes of stridor in children:
- Defects in the child’s nose and throat, larynx or trachea that the child was born with (congenital)
- Infections such as croup, epiglottitis, or tonsillitis and abscesses in the back of the throat
- Swallowing toxic substances
- Swallowing pieces of food or small objects that get caught in the upper airway
- Injuries to the jaw or neck
Other conditions may also cause stridor. For example, problems with the brain may interfere with normal breathing. Or an allergic reaction may cause swelling of the airways. And tumors may also block the airways.
Stridor is a noisy or high-pitched sound with breathing. It's a sign that the upper airway is partially blocked. It may involve the nose, mouth, sinuses, voice box (larynx) or windpipe (trachea).
The upper airway in a child is shorter and narrower than that of an adult. Because of this, a child is more likely to have problems with blockage of the airway.
The main symptom of stridor is the noise that is heard while your child breathes. The sound of stridor depends on where the blockage is in your child’s upper respiratory tract.
If your child has stridor that comes back, he or she may have trouble eating and drinking, and poor weight gain.
The health care provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. The provider may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT).
If your child has stridor, the health care provider may order tests to find the cause. The tests may include:
- X-rays. X-rays of the chest and neck may be done.
- CT scan or MRI. These are more detailed studies of the internal organs. Your child may need these so the ENT can look at the anatomy of the chest and neck.
- Laryngoscopy. A special instrument is used to check the back of the throat and larynx.
- Bronchoscopy. A special instrument is used to check the throat, larynx, trachea and tubes leading into the lungs (bronchi).
- Spirometry. This is an easy test that checks how much air is breathed in and out. It also measures how quickly the air is breathed out. It is difficult to test young children with spirometry.
- Pulse oximetry. An oximeter is a small tool that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. A small sensor is placed on a finger or toe. When the machine is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The sensor is painless and the red light does not get hot.
- Sputum culture. A sample of the material (sputum) that is coughed up from the lungs is sent to the lab to check for infection.
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Your child’s health care provider may simply watch and recheck your child for certain conditions that cause stridor. Treatment may include:
- Referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT)
- Surgery, if the stridor is severe
- Medicines by mouth or shots to help decrease the swelling in the airways or treat an infection
- Hospital stay and emergency surgery, depending on how severe the stridor is
If left untreated, stridor can block the child’s airway. This can be life-threatening or even cause death.
Call your child’s health care provider if your child makes a noisy or high-pitched sound while breathing.
Call 911 or get medical help right away if your child has signs or symptoms of severe blockage of the airway. These signs may include:
- Gasping for air, choking
- Nostrils widening when breathing
- Sinking in of the areas between the ribs when breathing
- Change in behavior
- Bluish-colored skin
- Loss of consciousness
Emeritus Chief, Ear, Nose, and Throat (Otolaryngology)
Director, Aerodigestive Clinic
Director, Vascular Anomalies Clinic
Director, Pediatric Otolaryngology Fellowship
Director, Pediatric Voice Program
Director, Quality Improvement and Safety
Co-Director, Complex Sinusitis Program
Division Chief, Ear, Nose, and Throat (Otolaryngology)
Co-Director of the Cochlear Implant Program
Co-Director of the Cochlear Implant Program
Senior Vice President for the Children’s National Hospital-Based Specialties Center
The Airway Program is a specialized program in the Division of Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose, and Throat), one the largest and most prestigious pediatric otolaryngology programs in the country.
Children’s National is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s best pediatric hospitals for pulmonology and lung surgery because of our expertise in the field, and the quality of care provided to patients and their families.
Our pediatric otolaryngology experts diagnose and treat a wide range of pediatric ear, nose and throat disorders.
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