Signs of breathing problems in children

How to spot respiratory tract infections in children

Infections of your child’s nose, sinuses, throat, airway or lungs are called respiratory tract infections. They are a common cause of breathing problems in children.

Call 999 now if your child has any of these breathing-related symptoms:

  • Severe breathing difficulties
  • Grunting with the effort of trying to breathe
  • The muscles under their ribs are sucking in with each breath
  • Fast breathing
  • Your child won’t wake up, or won’t stay awake
  • Breathing stops for more than 20 seconds
  • Regular shorter pauses in their breathing while they are awake
  • Very pale or blue skin, or the inside of their lips and tongue are blue
  • Fitting, if they have never had a fit before

What are the signs of a respiratory tract infection?

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

Respiratory means to do with breathing. 

Respiratory tract infections can cause breathing problems.

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:


If your child gets recurrent infections

If an infection does not go away or keeps returning, then this could be a sign of an underlying problem. Find out more in our information about going to the doctor.

How many coughs and colds are normal?

It’s normal for a toddler going to nursery to have 6 to 8 coughs and colds in a year. If your child is having other symptoms that keep coming back, see your doctor.


Next: When should I call 999 about my child’s breathing? > 

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

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.