Signs of breathing problems in children

Breathing problems to look out for in children

This information tells you about what signs to look out for.

Infections of your child’s sinuses, throat, airway or lungs are called respiratory tract infections. 

Respiratory means to do with breathing.

Upper respiratory tract infections

Infections of the nose, sinuses and throat are called upper respiratory tract infections. Children usually get more of these because they are not yet immune to the viruses that usually cause them. Most of the time they will recover by themselves.

Common symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection are:

Lower respiratory tract infections

Infections that affect your child’s main airways and lungs are called lower respiratory tract infections.  As well as the symptoms above they may have:

Other lung or breathing conditions

Not all lung conditions are infections.

If these symptoms keep coming back they may be a sign of other lung or breathing conditions:

More information about symptoms

This section describes the symptoms above in more detail.

Runny nose, blocked nose and sneezing

A runny nose is usually caused by a cold.

Sometimes it’s caused by an allergy – this is often called hay fever.

If your child’s runny nose is caused by allergies, they may be more likely to have asthma and problems sleeping too.

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Everyone coughs from time to time. A cough helps clear the airway of mucus and things like dust and smoke. An occasional cough is not usually a sign of anything serious.

More persistent coughs are due to a cold or viral infection that usually clears up in a few days. Some coughs carry on for a few weeks after the infection has cleared. Common cough medicines do not stop coughing and are not recommended.

If your child is vomiting after they cough, has bouts of coughing that last over a minute several times a day, or has a cough that lasts for longer than 3-4 weeks then you should visit your doctor.

This sort of coughing can be a sign of conditions such as:

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Breathing problems

It’s important to seek help if your child is breathing in a different way than usual. Our sections on when to call 999 and when to go to the doctor have more information.

Fast breathing can be a sign of an infection of the lower airways such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Wheezing is a high-pitched sound that comes from the chest when your child is breathing out. Most wheezing in pre-school children is linked to upper respiratory infections. Wheezing is a common symptom of asthma. Occasionally, other uncommon chest infections may also cause wheezing.

Breathlessness or difficulty breathing that gets worse over a few hours could be a sign of an asthma attack.

Pneumonia and chest infections can also cause breathlessness.

Sudden and unexpected breathlessness or difficulty breathing could mean your child has something blocking their airway and is choking.

Difficulty breathing when your child exercises can be a sign of asthma.

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A fever is a high temperature. In children, a temperature of over 37.5C (99.5F) is a fever.

A high temperature can be a sign of infection – including infections in the upper respiratory tract and lungs.

The NHS choices website has more information on temperature and fever.

They recommend that you seek urgent help from your GP, health visitor or NHS 111 if your child:

  • is under 3 months and has a temperature of 38C (101F) or over
  • is 3-6 months and has a temperature of 39C (102F) or over

NHS choices also suggests you should always get medical help for your child of any age who has a high temperature if:

  • you think your child may be dehydrated
  • your child develop a red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • your child has a fit
  • your child is inconsolable and doesn’t stop crying
  • the fever lasts for more than 5 days
  • your child’s health is getting worse
  • you’re concerned about looking after your child at home

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If your child has a high temperature (fever) they may also be drowsy or confused.

Children with a temperature often lack interest or are more sleepy or irritable than usual. They usually improve after taking children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen to bring their temperature down.

Seek urgent help from your GP, health visitor or NHS 111 if your child is drowsy and:

  • has other symptoms of a lower respiratory tract infection
  • doen’t improve after taking paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • they are very drowsy indeed

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Problems with feeding and drinking

Problems with feeding and drinking can be a sign of a problem with the lungs and airways.

Your child may not be feeding or drinking if:

  • they have an infection and a high temperature
  • they are struggling to feed and breathe at the same time

Seek help if your child is having difficulty breastfeeding or they are drinking half or less than half the amount they usually would. They may need to go to hospital to make sure they get enough food and fluid.

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Aches and pains

Chest pain, headaches and other aches and pains can be signs of a chest infection.

A tight, sore chest can be a sign of asthma.

Babies and small children do usually not complain about aches and pains.  But they might be irritable if you pick them up.

If your child is older they might say, “My chest’s hurting or “I’ve got a tummy ache”.

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Coloured mucus

Mucus protects your child’s airways. It traps unwanted particles and carries them away.

Mucus can be a problem if it doesn’t work properly or if there’s too much of it. A build up of mucus in your child’s airways is called catarrh.

Young children usually swallow their mucus so you may not know what colour it is.

But if you are able to see it, yellow, green or brown mucus is a sign of infection. It might not be serious or need treatment. For example green mucus running from their nose can be caused by mild infections that don’t need antibiotics.

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A change in skin colour

A change in your child’s skin colour may mean they do not have enough oxygen in their blood.

Call 999 if:

  • your child’s skin is very pale and they have other symptoms of an infection or lung condition
  • your child’s skin looks blue
  • the inside of their lips and tongue are blue

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If your child gets recurrent infections

If infection does not go away or keeps returning, then this could be a sign of an underlying problem.  There’s more information in our information about when you should go to the doctor.

If you have concerns or need advice, call our helpline on 03000 030 555 between 9am and 5pm on a weekday or email them.

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Last medically reviewed: September 2016. Due for review: September 2019

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.