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Signs of breathing problems in children

How to spot respiratory tract infections in children

On this page, find out how to spot the signs of a respiratory tract infection in your child.

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

On this page:

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

  • Your child is having severe difficulty breathing
  • Your child is grunting with the effort of trying to breathe, their nostrils may flare in and out and they may be pursing their lips
  • The muscles under their ribs are sucking in with each breath
  • Fast breathing
  • Your child won’t wake up, or won’t stay awake
  • Your child’s breathing stops for 20 seconds or longer on one occasion, or there are regular shorter pauses in their breathing
  • They have 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, airways, or lungs are called respiratory tract infections. Most respiratory tract infections are caused by a virus infection and get better without treatment, but in some cases you might need to seek help.

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: 

  • a runny nose 
  • coughing 
  • a high temperature 
  • sore throat, earache, or other aches and pains 
  • noisy breathing (you may hear a wheeze or a whistle)
  • problems with feeding and drinking because of difficulty breathing
  • increased breathing through the mouth if they have a blocked nose.

If your child has a sore throat from an upper respiratory tract infection, they may not want to eat or drink. It’s a good idea to give them soft foods that will be easier to swallow. Very young children may dribble more if they find swallowing difficult.

Lower respiratory tract infections

Infections that affect your child’s main airways and lungs are called lower respiratory tract infections (chest infections).

As well as symptoms similar to upper respiratory tract infections, your child may have:

  • high temperature
  • coughing and vomiting with coughing
  • breathing difficulties (breathing fast, making a noise when they breathe or struggling to breathe)
  • drowsiness 
  • a change in skin colour.

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 six to eight 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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