Breathing Problems (dyspnea)

Trouble with breathing can be caused by problems with the lungs, heart or the nervous system (anxiety). Dyspnea is the medical term for difficult or labored breathing.

Patients can be seen by Texas Children's experts in Ear Nose and Throat (Otolaryngology).

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes include:

  • Asthma (including exercise-induced asthma)
  • Respiratory infections such as croup, bronchitis and pneumonia (most common causes of breathing difficulty in children)

Risk factors include:

  • Having asthma
  • Having bronchitis
  • Sleep apnea
  • Having allergies
  • Having pneumonia
  • Being anemic (a condition in which the body doesn't get enough oxygen due to not enough red blood cells)
  • Anxiety

Symptoms & Types

Symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Flared nostrils
  • Rapid or noisy breathing
  • Grunting between breaths
  • Sucking in the chest with each breath
  • Face turning blue

Diagnosis & Tests

The tests your child will have depend on symptoms and the type of breathing problem.

Your child's doctor will ask questions such as:

  • How long the problem has existed?
  • When does it seem to be the worst?
  • What triggers the breathing problem?

Tests may include:

  • Drawing blood
  • X-ray or CT scan
  • Measuring lung function to see how much air can be breathed in and breathed out and the strength of the muscles used to breathe

Treatment & Care

Treatment and care depends on the cause of the breathing problem. Treatment can range from antibiotics (for pneumonia) to allergy shots (for allergies).

If the cause is anxiety (excessive worry, fear or anxiousness) learning what triggers the anxiety is key to treatment.

Living & Managing

Managing the breathing problem depends on the cause.

  • Anxiety:  Managing what causes the anxiety is key.
  • Respiratory infection: Be sure that your child finishes the prescribed medication.  
  • Asthma:  Learn what triggers the attacks and ensure your child takes the proper medicine.
  • Overexertion during exercise: Proper conditioning and learning to control pace are essential. This is especially important when moving from recreational sports to more serious athletics.