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Common Causes of Breathing Difficulty in Children

Breathing difficulty is one of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19. Because of this, any parent whose child shows signs of having trouble breathing might worry. Although there are fewer cases of COVID-19 involving kids compared to adults, you would still want to know what to do if your child’s symptoms are actually linked to COVID

As your trusted provider of urgent care, we advise, first and foremost, that you don’t panic if your child is having breathing difficulties. Next is to determine the possible cause of their symptoms. In this post, we’ll discuss the common causes of breathing difficulty in children.

How to Determine If Your Child is Having Trouble Breathing

Cough and colds are common in children. These are usually harmless and if the cause is a mild viral infection, a good dose of sleep, rest, and lots of fluids is all they need to get better. However, breathing problems that have a more serious etiology can pose a risk to your child’s health and must be attended to immediately.

Signs That Your Child is Having Breathing Problems

If you observe any of the following signs and symptoms, it’s highly possible that they are having trouble breathing even if they can’t tell you what they feel directly. When you notice any of these symptoms, it’s best to bring your child to the nearest urgent care for immediate medical treatment:

1. Fast breathing rate. This is the first noticeable sign that your child has breathing difficulty. The normal breathing rate in children depends on their age. It’s too fast if it’s more than the following breaths per minute (bpm):

  • 0-5 months: 30-60 bpm
  • 6-12 months: 24-30 bpm
  • 1-5 years: 20-30 bpm
  • 6 years and up: 12-20 bpm
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Source: https://img.webmd.comIs-my_child_breathing_too_fast_chart.png 

2. Laborious breathing. This is when it takes more effort for your child to breathe. You’ll notice that there is a heavy rise and fall of the chest and the use of abdominal muscles when breathing. Flaring of the nostrils when breathing in and grunting when breathing out may also be observed.

3. Pale or bluish skin color. This means that the child isn’t getting enough oxygen.

4. Lethargy. The child may appear drowsy, tired, and having difficulty staying awake. This means that the body’s tissues aren’t getting enough oxygen needed for energy production.

5. Abnormal breath sounds. You may hear a whistling or a high-pitched sound when the child breathes, which means that there is an obstruction in the respiratory tract that interferes with air flow. 

5 Common Causes of Breathing Difficulty in Children


Epiglottitis is a bacterial infection characterized by swelling and inflammation of the epiglottis, a small flap of tissue that lies behind the tongue. A swollen epiglottis can block the trachea, obstructing the passage of air into and out of the lungs.


Pneumonia refers to inflammation of the lungs and is caused by a bacterial infection. The most common symptom of pneumonia is a productive cough with a lot of phlegm, which usually looks yellowish or greenish. Other symptoms include body pain and a high fever. Since the lungs are infected, they produce a lot of mucus, impairing gas exchange.


Asthma, or bronchial asthma is a respiratory condition characterized by the narrowing and swelling of the airways and an increase in mucus production. It is usually caused by triggers that the child is sensitive to, such as pollen, animal fur, dust, fumes, and molds. Intense emotion and too much stress can also trigger an asthma attack. Wheezing is a common sign of asthma. This sound is produced because of the narrowed airway.

Read more about what parents should know about childhood asthma in this article.

Foreign body obstruction

If your child appears to be choking and is pointing to their throat, they probably ingested a foreign body. Children below five years of age comprise 98% of foreign body aspiration cases, according to a study

If you suspect that your child has ingested something, don’t panic. Perform the heimlich maneuver as a first aid treatment or call your emergency hotline. Better yet, bring the child to the nearest walk in clinic. 

Viral infections

There are several types of viruses that cause upper respiratory infections such as sore throats and colds. Most of these viral infections are mild and get better on their own. However, an infected child may have difficulty breathing due to clogged sinuses as the body produces more mucus to fight off the virus. 


Allergies may also cause breathing problems in children. When your child is allergic to dust, pet dander, pollen, or food, their upper respiratory tract may react and the airway may be clogged. 

“Does My Child Have COVID?”

If your child is experiencing difficulty in breathing, it’s understandable if you can’t help but wonder if they contracted COVID-19. However, the only way to know if your child has COVID is to get them tested. For your peace of mind, you can go to our Urgent Care of The Palm Beaches, placed at 3 convenient locations: West Palm Beach, Forest Hill, or Palm Beach Gardens as we offer safe, reliable, and accurate COVID-19 testing. You can get the result in as fast as 15 minutes!

When to See a Doctor

Typically, a child’s symptoms associated with respiratory problems including breathing troubles get better within a few days. However, if you notice the following, it’s advised that you take them to a doctor:

  • Your child’s condition and symptoms seem to worsen.
  • Their symptoms don’t go away or improve after a few days.
  • They can’t eat or drink enough.
  • Your child is dehydrated (has dry lips, less urine, and absence of tears when crying).
  • They cough up dark brown or bloody mucus.
  • They have been previously diagnosed with a condition known to cause breathing difficulties, such as asthma.

When to Go to the Emergency Room or Call 911

When your child is sick, you should keep a close eye on them. You need to go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe breathing difficulty.
  • Very fast breathing.
  • The muscles under their ribs are being pulled in with every breath.
  • Your child grunts as they breathe.
  • There are pauses in their breathing.
  • Your child can’t stay awake or won’t wake up.
  • When their skin turns very pale or bluish -- also check the lips and tongue.

Take Your Child to Our Urgent Care of the Palm Beaches For Immediate Consultation

If you are worried about your child’s breathing problem, take them to our walk-in urgent care clinic nearest you:

We also offer telemedicine urgent care so that your child can be checked from the comforts of your home. Our doctors can perform an initial check virtually and instruct you what to do next. To rule out COVID-19, we can also do rapid COVID-19 testing

Furthermore, if your child has been diagnosed with any of the conditions mentioned above, the best thing to do is work together with a doctor for a treatment and management plan. Schedule an appointment now or contact us for more information.

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.

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