Breathing Problems: When Should I Take My Child to the ER?

If you have a child who frequently struggles with coughs, colds and congestion, you’ve probably been awakened in the middle of the night by the tearful cry of “I can’t breathe!” As parents, we want to do everything we can to make our little ones feel better. But the truth is, most of the time they really can breathe … just not comfortably through their noses. Here’s how to tell if they’re truly having trouble breathing.

Call 911 if your child is not getting enough air. EMTs can start emergency breathing treatment on the way to the hospital.

Look for these warning signs:

  • Breathing fast, trouble breathing (can’t breathe through nose or mouth), shortness of breath or shallow breathing, not breathing at all
  • Bluish, purplish or grayish skin, especially around the lips, inside the mouth and around the nails
  • Unresponsiveness, incoherence, confusion, agitation, dizziness
  • A child whose asthma is not well controlled who is having an asthma attack

These symptoms could indicate asthma or a respiratory infection. Children should receive immediate medical attention if they are experiencing:

  • Coughing that is
    • Intermittent
    • Lasts more than two to three weeks
    • Includes a barking sound
  • Wheezing or raspy breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Trouble sleeping and fatigue

Prevention and treatment.

For breathing problems associated with colds, seasonal allergies or as part of your pediatrician’s ongoing treatment for severe allergic reactions and asthma, these tips can help your children breathe easier.

  • Check the air quality in your home and reduce or remove health hazards
  • Make sure children with a history of severe allergic reactions always have a fresh epinephrine pen and wear medical alert tags
  • Don’t run out of children’s allergy or asthma medications
  • Make sure children get whooping cough (pertussis) vaccines and tetanus boosters
  • Placing a humidifier or cold mist vaporizer in children’s rooms or exposing them to a steamy shower will thin mucus and allow it to be coughed up more easily
  • Vapor rubs applied to the chest and neck may relieve nighttime symptoms, especially in children age 2 to 11 years old
  • Use saline (saltwater) nasal spray for stuffy noses; other types of nasal sprays can be addicting and eventually cause increased congestion