Children’s lungs are still growing and they breathe differently from adults. Their immune systems are not fully developed, and so infections are common.
Some children are born with under-developed lungs, for example because of prematurity, while others are born with a lung condition. Some children develop lung conditions, and there are different causes and risk factors. Some conditions are episodic – this means that they come and go; others are long term conditions.
There are some conditions in children that are common and others that are very rare. On this page you can find out about the range of different lung and breathing problems that affect babies, children and young people. You can also find out where to get help and support for particular conditions.
If you want to talk to someone, our helpline team can offer specialist support and advice about children’s lung conditions. Call us on 03000 030 555, Monday to Friday, 9am - 5pm.
Lung conditions that come and go
This is a common infection of the upper airway (air tubes) that most commonly affects babies and young children. It is usually caused by a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
The infection causes the bronchioles (airways) to become inflamed (swollen), with an increase in mucus production. The swelling and mucus can then block the airway. This makes it more difficult for air to get to the lungs and it can cause breathing difficulty.
Babies and young children are more likely to get bronchiolitis because their airways are small.
Bronchiolitis is most common in the winter months between November and March.
Some babies and young children will need to go to hospital, and in a small number, intensive care is needed.
For more information on bronchiolitis, visit the More than a cold website.
Wheeze is a high pitched, whistling sound that occurs when the airways become narrowed. Causes include a spasm (tightening) of the airway, a swelling of the airway lining, and too much secretion.
Wheeze is an uncommon symptom just after birth but is common throughout childhood. One study found that 18.9 per cent of children aged 10 were wheezing, with wheezing starting at age three on average. Treatment with inhalers is sometimes needed.
Pneumonia is inflammation (swelling) in one or both lungs which is usually caused by an infection.
In the UK, most children can fight pneumonia, but if their immune system is weak, then they are at higher risk.
Pneumonia is more common in boys. Premature babies are also more at risk.
Hospital admissions for pneumonia in children have fallen since the introduction of the PCV7 vaccine. This vaccine protects children from one of the commonest types of infection.
Long term lung conditions
The two best known lung conditions in children are asthma and cystic fibrosis.
This is a common lung condition, affecting over 1.1 million children in the UK, an average of two children in every classroom across the country.
The symptoms of asthma include wheezing, breathlessness, cough and chest tightness. The symptoms may be worse at different times, for example when the child has a cold. The symptoms can be controlled with treatment and by avoiding the things that trigger the asthma to get worse.
Cystic fibrosis (CF)
CF is much rarer than asthma. It affects over 10,000 people in the UK. You can't catch or develop CF; it's inherited (something you're born with). In the UK, a heel prick blood test carried out at day six of life means that most babies are now diagnosed soon after birth.
One in 25 people carry the faulty cystic fibrosis gene. For someone to be born with cystic fibrosis, both parents must carry the faulty gene.
CF is a complex disease that affects many different organs, including the lungs. CF causes the body to produce thick mucus, which affects the lungs and digestive system in particular. Symptoms can include a troublesome cough, repeated chest infections, prolonged diarrhoea and poor weight gain. These symptoms are not unique to cystic fibrosis. Modern treatment is very effective.
For more information and support about cystic fibrosis, visit the Cystic Fibrosis Trust website.
Other long term conditions
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) - this is the most common breathing disorder that happens during sleep. For more information, visit our web page on OSA in children.
Children’s interstitial lung disease (chILD) – this is a group of rare lung diseases found in infants, children and teenagers. There are many types, but the different types can have some of the same symptoms. However, the symptoms may vary in severity. Treatment depends on the type of chILD. For more information and support about children’s ILDs, contact chILD.
Primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD) – this is a rare inherited condition which affects the cilia; these are tiny hair-like structures that line the airways (air tubes). Usually, the cilia move mucus towards the mouth where it can be coughed out or swallowed. This is part of the lungs’ self-defence process. In PCD, the cilia do not beat normally and therefore cannot remove unwanted mucus effectively. This leads to recurrent respiratory tract infections. For more support and information about PCD, contact the PCD support group.
Other rare conditions - there are many other rare lung conditions. 75 per cent of all rare diseases affect children, and there are over 6,000 recognised rare diseases. For more information about rare diseases, visit the Rare Disease UK website.
Children with complex needs – children may have respiratory problems as part of a condition which affects other parts of their body. They may need a lot of extra care and support, and they may require oxygen treatment at home to help them breathe more normally. For more information about oxygen treatment, visit the NHS Choices website.
Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BDP) – this can occur in babies who are born very early and whose lungs have not yet developed fully. BDP is sometimes called chronic lung disease of prematurity. Such babies may need extra oxygen to help them breathe, and have a higher risk of respiratory infection. Lung function improves with age, but damage to the lungs may continue into adulthood. For more information and support about prematurity, contact BLISS.
Risk factors which may affect children’s lungs
There are lots of things you can do to help promote healthy lungs.
Avoid smoking when there are children present or if you are pregnantProtecting your child from tobacco smoke is one of the best things you can do to give your child a healthy start in life, because tobacco exposure is a big risk for increased breathing and lung conditions in children. This is especially true if the mother smokes during pregnancy. Therefore avoiding smoking anywhere where children are present reduces this risk.
Avoid triggersThese can make symptoms worse, so knowing what they are means that you know what to avoid. Triggers may be indoors or outdoors. They include animals (pets), certain foods, some household products, medicines, pollen, moulds and air pollution (see below). See the Asthma UK website for more information about triggers. See the Allergy UK website for more information about allergies.
Diet and nutritionThere is increasing evidence that diet and nutrition play a role in the development and progress of lung disease. Being obese or underweight can be harmful for lungs. For more information about diet and nutrition, see the European Lung Foundation website.
Avoid air pollutionThis term refers to harmful particles in the air and gases in the atmosphere that can be breathed in. There are many different chemicals involved and the mixture varies depending on where you are, the season and the sources of pollution in the area. Air pollution can occur indoors or outdoors. Children with asthma suffer more on or after days with higher pollution levels. Pre-school children suffer more from cough and bronchitis when exposed to higher levels of pollutants than other children in less polluted areas.
WashingWashing hands regularly with soap and water can help reduce the spread of respiratory infections. For more information and tips on avoiding infections in babies, look at the More than a cold website.
The BLF values feedback on all of its information. To let us know your views, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last medically reviewed: October 2014. Due for review: October 2016.
News about the BLF and children (October 2014)
We are making lots of plans to improve the information and support we give to families affected by children’s lung conditions, and to campaign about the issues that are important to you.
We want to develop a range of projects and campaigns. We are planning to focus on:
- Creating lung healthy environments for children
- Raising awareness of the importance of lung health
- Making sure health care professionals feel confident to help care for children with breathing problems
- Providing support and information to families
- Making sure parents and children have a voice and that this is heard by decision makers
- Supporting the development of services across the UK
As part of this, we will be improving our website information about children.
Do you want to tell us what information and support you need? Do you have a story to tell about a child or young person with a respiratory condition? We want to hear from you! If you are interested and would like to know more information about our plans, then please contact the BLF at email@example.com.