Signs of Respiratory Distress

Respiratory distress refers to a condition in which a child’s respiratory system may not keep up with the oxygen and gas exchange needs. Most premature babies face this medical problem because of their underdeveloped lungs. The major causes of respiratory distress in children include chronic illness, infections, and blocked airway. A child with serious breathing difficulty should receive medical care immediately. Read on and learn the signs of respiratory distress and treatment options.

Signs of Respiratory Distress

Children who are suffering from respiratory distress will show signs that they are not getting enough oxygen and are working hard to breathe. Here are some signs of low oxygen levels:

  • Increased breathing rate: A higher number of breaths per minutes arethe sign that the child is experiencing breathing difficulty or not receiving enough oxygen.
  • Increased heart rate: An increase in heart rate may result from low oxygen levels.
  • Changes in color: When a child is not getting enough oxygen, he or she may have a bluish color inside the lips, around the mouth and on fingernails. His or her skin color may seem pale or gray.
  • Grunting: You may hear a grunting sound when the child breathes out. This is the body’s way of keeping air in the lungs so that the lungs remain open.
  • Nose flaring: When a child is working hard to breath, his or her nose spreads open when he or she is breathing.
  • Retractions: The chest may appear to sink in below the neck and/or below the breastbone when the child breathes. The body uses this mechanism to supply more air to the lungs.
  • Sweating: Yourchild may sweat more on the head while the skin feels clammy or cold. This is often accompanied by a fast breathing rate.
  • Wheezing: You may hear a tight, musical or whistling with each breath. This may indicate that the air passages are smaller, which makes breathing difficult.
  • Stridor: This is one of the signs of respiratory distress, which is an inspiratory sound from the upper airway.
  • Using accessories muscles: The muscles between ribs, under the rib cage and around the neck muscles may seem to move every time your child breathes in.
  • Lower alertness: Your child may act tired when oxygen levels are low, which is a sign of respiratory fatigue.

What Causes Respiratory Distress?

The conditions that cause breathing difficulty in infants and toddlers include:

  • Viral infections: Viral infection in the respiratory tract is one of the most common causes of breathing distress in infants and toddlers.
  • Coughing: Cough is among the most common reasons why children seek medical attention.
  • Croup: Croup causes a stridor, a barking cough and a hoarse croaky voice in children.
  • Viral induced or transient wheeze: This condition is common in infants below 24 months. Infant airways are narrow and a virus makes them narrower. This leads to obstruction to airflow and a whistling sound when the child breathes out. Other signs of respiratory distress may accompany this condition
  • Asthma: This disease runs in families and causes a wheeze and respiratory distress in children. A viral infection such as a cold may trigger an asthma attack.
  • Bronchiolitis: Bronchiolitic epidemics are common in winter and cause feeding problems and respiratory distress.
  • Pneumonia: Breathing difficulty and a fever are common signs of pneumonia. Pneumonia is either bacterial or viral and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Congenital heart disease: Some of the signs of the congenital heart disease include sweaty and breathless feeds. A baby with this condition may look dusky or blue around the lips and may not gain weight. Seek medical attention if you notice such signs.

How Is Respiratory Distress Treated?

Babies suffering from respiratory distress require specialized treatment in special care nursery or neonatal intensive care unit. The treatment process for a baby with respiratory distress syndrome focuses on supporting the baby’s breathing. The process includes the following:

  • Placing an endotracheal tube (ET) in the baby’s wind pipe.
  • Using a mechanical breathing machine to help your baby breathe.
  • Supplying extra amounts or supplemental oxygen.
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), which is a breathing machine that supplies oxygen continuously to the airways to open the air passages in the lungs.
  • Replacing surfactant with artificial surfactant: This reduces the severity of respiratory distress and is most effective when initiated within the first six hours of birth. It is sometimes used a rescue method or a preventive treatment for high-risk babies. Surfactant is in powder form, which is dissolved in sterile water and given using the ET tube. The treatment is given in doses.
  • Medications to relieve pain and sedate your baby during treatment.

How to Prevent Respiratory Distress?

You cannot avoid all breathing problems but you can prevent some signs of respiratory distress in the following ways:

  • Avoid smoking around children: Children who are exposed to smoke suffer twice as many respiratory infections as those who are not. Do not smoke in your child’s room even when he or she is absent. The curtains, carpet and blankets may absorb the smoke residue. Always smoke outdoors if you must.
  • Ensure that there is no dust in your child’s room.
  • Avoid applying cornstarch or baby powder on your child because they will irritate his or her lungs.
  • Encourage all family members to wash their hands regularly to avoiding spreading germs in your home.
  • Keep your child away from sick people wheneverpossible.
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