Signs of breathing problems in children

Seeing a doctor about my child's breathing

This information explains what you should expect when you see a doctor.

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

Respiratory infections are common in children and most of the time they will recover by themselves.

When 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.

You should take your child to the doctor if any symptom does not go away or keeps coming back.

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
  • has problems feeding and drinking and is showing signs of dehydration
  • coughs up bloody mucus
  • is becoming more breathless than usual after exercise or during day to day activities
  • has been coughing for more than 3 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

How can I prepare and what should I ask?

Before you go to the doctor, think about what you want to happen. Do you want some medicine or some advice about how to help your child at home? Or do you want your child seen by a specialist doctor?

Write down a list of your child’s symptoms before you go.  Make sure you tell your doctor which symptoms you’re most worried about.

Have a think if anyone in the family has recently had an infection that affected their breathing. Your doctor might ask about this but if not, make sure to tell them.

Your doctor might also ask whether anyone in the family has been diagnosed with a breathing or lung condition.

Take any medication your child is already having and tell your doctor about it. This includes tablets, liquid medicines, injections, inhalers and spacers.

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 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.

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 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.

If your child is over 5, they may ask them to blow into devices that measure their lung function, 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.

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

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.