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Signs of breathing problems in children

Seeing a doctor about your child's breathing

On this page, read about what you should expect when you see a doctor about your child’s breathing, including when you should go, how to prepare and what the doctor will do.

On this page:

When should I go to the doctor about my child’s breathing?

Respiratory infections, which can cause breathing problems, are common in children and most of the time they will recover by themselves.

When babies, toddlers and young children catch a cold they often get a noisy chest or chesty cough. However, half of all children’s coughs and breathing problems get better after 10 days.

The main thing is to trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone and know what they’re normally like, so if you feel something isn’t right then you should seek medical assistance. 

You should take your child to the doctor if symptoms do not go away or keep coming back. It’s normal for healthy children under two to have coughs and colds from which they fully recover, around six to eight times in a year. This is not worrying.

You should also go to the doctor if your child:

  • has had a fever for 24 hours or more with no other signs of infection – read more about fever in children on the NHS website 
  • has problems feeding and drinking and is showing signs of dehydration 
  • coughs up bloody mucus or nasal discharge that smells
  • is becoming more breathless than usual after exercise or during day-to-day activities
  • has been coughing continuously for more than three-four weeks   
  • already has a diagnosed lung condition - and also has symptoms of an infection 
  • has a weak immune system or a condition that affects other organs - and also has symptoms of an infection
  • is unusually quiet or tired, or you are worried about them.

Debby, one of our helpline nurses, has written a blog on how to ask for an urgent appointment when your child needs one.

How can I prepare and what should I ask?

  • What do you want to happen?
    Before you go to the doctor, think about what you want to happen. Do you want advice on how to help your child at home? Advice on whether any medication or antibiotics are needed to help treat your child’s condition or prevent it happening again? Your doctor to explain your child’s symptoms and why they are happening, and if they need to be seen by a specialist doctor?
  • List all symptoms
    Write down a list of your child’s symptoms – remember to include details, for example time of day, if it’s after food. Make sure you tell your doctor which symptoms you’re most worried about.
  • Recent infections
    Have a think if anyone in the family or anyone your child’s been in contact with has recently had an infection that affected their breathing (for example, at school or nursery). Your doctor might ask about this but if not, you should tell them.
  • Family lung conditions
    Your doctor might also ask if anyone in the family has been diagnosed with a breathing or lung condition.
  • Remember medication
    Bring any medication your child is taking and tell your doctor about it. This includes tablets, liquid medicines, injections, inhalers, and spacers.
  • Record the symptoms
    Some parents take a short video or sound recording of their child – this can be especially helpful for night time symptoms. It can help your doctor understand your child’s problem.
  • Ask for explanations
    Ask your doctor to explain anything you don’t understand. For example, they may ask about the type of cough that your child has. If you don’t know how to answer, ask them to explain.
  • Should they be at home?
    If your child goes to any sort of childcare or is at school, ask your doctor whether or not you should keep them at home.
  • What should I do next?
    Ask your doctor who you should contact if your child’s symptoms continue. Also, when you should seek additional medical assistance, and any signs or symptoms you should look out for. You should also ask how long they think your child’s illness will last.

Your GP checklist

This checklist will help you get what you need from your visit to the GP.


  • What do you want to happen?
  • Write down a list of symptoms. Include:
    1. worrying symptoms
    2. symptoms that won’t go away, or keep coming back
    3. a recording of your child’s breathing or coughing if this would be helpful
  • Has anyone in the family recently had an infection that affected their breathing?
  • Has anyone in the family recently been diagnosed with a lung condition?
  • Bring all medication with you to the doctor
  • Remember to ask for explanations and more information if needed

Here are some further questions to ask:

  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • Will my child be referred to a specialist?
  • What can I do to care for my child at home?
  • Should I keep my child off school or nursery?

Further information:

When should I worry? is information designed to help parents of children with respiratory tract infections on when to visit the doctor.

What will the doctor do?

Your doctor will talk to you about your child’s symptoms and any family history of breathing and lung problems. 

They may also listen to your child breathing with a stethoscope and look in their ears, nose and throat. They may also count their breathing and their pulse, check their temperature, and look at how they’re breathing – the doctor will need your child to undress their upper body. They may also check their oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter.

If your child is over five, they may ask them to blow into devices that measure their lung function (how well their lungs are working), such as a peak flow meter or spirometer.

They may: 

They should ask you to come back if your child doesn’t improve within a certain time – ask the doctor when you should come back if your child hasn’t improved.

If your doctor thinks your child has a serious lung condition they may:

  • call an ambulance for you – this will only happen if they believe your child is showing signs of serious illness and needs immediate help
  • refer your child to a specialist doctor for further tests and assessments - you will be sent an appointment letter to go to a clinic at a later date.

Next: how can I look after my child at home? >

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