Did you know that by the age of six, almost 50% of children will have had at least one episode of wheezing?
What is Wheezing?
Wheezing is a sound made when air inside the bronchioles or small windpipes inside our lungs cannot pass through easily. This happens because these windpipes begin to narrow.
“A child is said to be wheezing when she makes this noise while breathing. Parents may find it difficult to differentiate between wheezing in children and nasal congestion,” says Dr. Neha Joshi, Consultant, Pediatrics at Sitaram Bhartia Hospital in South Delhi.
“You should be able to distinguish between wheezing in children and nasal troubles because a wheezing attack may be life-threatening.”
How do I know if my child is wheezing?
A wheezing attack in children can be recognized by observing aspects such as:
Breathing sounds: If your child is making a soft, whistling-like sound while breathing, it is most likely that she is wheezing. In comparison, loud, harsh, snoring-like sounds may be caused by nasal congestion.
Effort to breathe: In the case of a nasal congestion, your child may open her mouth to breathe in order to bypass the blockage in the nose. With wheezing, however, the windpipes are the only passage for air exchange, and the child will not be able to bypass it in any way. As a result, the child may cough frequently and will be unable to speak.
In infants or toddlers who aren’t yet able to converse, you may notice that they are taking deep breaths. This can be observed through the inward movements of the muscles around their neck or between the rib spaces in their chest.
No parent wants to see their child in distress, which is why it’s important to understand why these attacks occur and what could be done to minimize their frequency.
What may cause wheezing in children?
There are multiple causes of wheezing in children such as
- Stuck foreign particles – Sometimes children accidentally inhale tiny pieces of toys which may get stuck in their windpipes and cause trouble breathing. Our own secretions may also cause clogging of the windpipes leading to breathing difficulty.
- Swollen windpipes – There are certain conditions like bronchiolitis which may cause inflammation in the windpipes. This condition is usually caused by a virus and mostly appears during the winter season.
- Outside pressure – The bronchioles may get compressed due to external pressure from surrounding organs.
Each of these factors compromises the air flow in children, making it harder to breathe.
A wheezing attack in children may be dangerous, which is why it is crucial to identify it in time.
When should you go to a doctor for wheezing?
You should take your child to a doctor if she is
- trying hard to breathe
- tiring out or is displaying unusual behaviour
- coughing and vomiting (especially after coughing) and is unable to eat or sleep
“All these signs suggest that the breathing problem could be arising from the chest, and that the child should be examined by a doctor,” shares Dr. Neha.
If the doctor’s clinic or hospital is at a distance and this is not the first time your child has had a wheezing attack, you could refer to an old prescription to check your home action plan before you meet the doctor.
“If, however, this is the first time your child is wheezing and is breathing fast or making sounds while breathing, especially in the case of infants or toddlers, you should get help as soon as possible.”
What can I expect in a doctor’s visit?
The pediatrician will take a brief history of the child and ask you about any symptoms you may have observed with respect to the efforts to breathe, sounds and any previous attacks.
“We perform a preliminary evaluation and check the oxygen saturation with instruments to determine whether there is sufficient air exchange. This is followed by a chest evaluation to determine why the child may be having breathing difficulty.”
Sometimes an X-ray may also be required to investigate further.
The pediatrician will determine the course of treatment depending upon the cause of wheezing diagnosed.
What should I do if my child is wheezing?
You should take your child to the emergency department to get her physically examined.
At the hospital, your child may be offered oxygen to help her breathe better. We may also recommend a cough syrup to ease the coughing and an inhaler to be taken in case of breathlessness.
“We monitor the child and then assess their response to the treatment. If we feel that the child is responding well and has recovered, she can go back home. We will guide you on what to do at home in case an attack recurs.”
Home remedies for wheezing in children
It is common for parents to wonder whether wheezing in children can be treated with home remedies.
“A wheezing attack is best treated using inhalers or following the course of action prescribed by your child’s doctor. If this is the first time your child is wheezing, it is best to consult a doctor in person,” says Dr. Neha.
We do not recommend home remedies such as flax seeds or Gingko Biloba for wheezing in babies, toddlers or children of any age as there is no scientific evidence that they help in preventing or treating a wheeze.
That said, there are a few things you can do at home to help your child, such as:
- Ensuring proper hydration– Fluids help moisturize the airway. In addition to water, you can give your child milk, soups and freshly squeezed juices.
- Ensuring proper clothing especially in winters – Respiratory infections are more common during the winter months, which is why it is important that your child stay warm and protected to avoid catching an infection.
- Using a humidifier to moisturize the air – Humidifiers help open up the respiratory passageway and the secretions that may otherwise block the nasal passages.
- Avoid exposure to jets of cold air – Because cold air is dry, it dries up the linings of the airways when breathed in, which may irritate the breathing tract and may aggravate your child’s uneasiness .
- Avoid exposure to fumes and pollution – These contain irritants that may cause windpipes to narrow, resulting in difficulty breathing. As such, it is best to avoid polluted areas.
“You should note the likely association of wheezing attacks with any particular irritants such as pollen or dust that are known to trigger wheezing so that these can be avoided in the future.”
Is wheezing in children caused by Asthma?
Many parents worry that wheezing in children indicates Asthma.
Answering this question, Dr. Neha explains, “Every instance of wheezing may not be caused by Asthma, although Asthma does commonly present in the form of wheezing.”
“We want parents to understand that Asthma commonly cannot be diagnosed through a single wheezing attack. Often, we observe the child’s breathing patterns over months to assess whether any repetitive attacks are a result of Asthma.”
“If your child is diagnosed with Asthma, medications and therapies are available that can limit further narrowing of the windpipes, and help your child breathe better.”
“Remember, any single episode of wheezing can be life-threatening, which is why we urge parents to seek a doctor’s advice sooner than later. “