Children - Respiratory disorders

Lungs & Respiratory System Problems

The respiratory system is susceptible to a number of diseases, and the lungs are prone to a wide range of disorders caused by pollutants in the air.

The most common problems of the respiratory system are:

Asthma. More than 20 million people in the United States have asthma, and it's the #1 reason that kids frequently miss school. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes airways to tighten and narrow. Often triggered by irritants in the air such as cigarette smoke, asthma flares involve contraction of the muscles and swelling of the lining of the tiny airways. The resulting narrowing of the airways prevents air from flowing properly, causing wheezing and difficulty breathing, sometimes to the point of being life-threatening. Controlling asthma starts with an asthma management plan, which usually involves avoiding asthma triggers and, sometimes, taking medicines.

Bronchiolitis. Not to be confused with bronchitis, bronchiolitis is an inflammation of the bronchioles, the smallest branches of the bronchial tree. Bronchiolitis affects mostly infants and young children, and can cause wheezing and serious difficulty breathing. It's usually caused by specific viruses in the wintertime, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a term that describes two lung diseases — emphysema and chronic bronchitis:

  • Long-term smoking often causes emphysema, and although it seldom affects kids and teens, it can have its roots in the teen and childhood years. Talking to your kids about smoking is a key part of preventing smoking-related diseases. In emphysema, the lungs produce an excessive amount of mucus and the alveoli become damaged. It becomes difficult to breathe and get enough oxygen into the blood.
  • In bronchitis, a common disease of adults and teens, the membranes lining the larger bronchial tubes become inflamed and an excessive amount of mucus is produced. The person develops a bad cough to get rid of the mucus. Cigarette smoking is a major cause of chronic bronchitis in teens.
  • Other Conditions

    Common cold. Caused by more than 200 different viruses that cause inflammation in the upper respiratory tract, the common cold is the most common respiratory infection. Symptoms may include a mild fever, cough, headache, runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat.

    Cough. A cough is a symptom of an illness, not an illness itself. There are many different types of cough and many different causes, ranging from not-so-serious to life-threatening. Some of the more common causes affecting kids are the common cold, asthma, sinusitis, seasonal allergies, croup, and pneumonia. Among the most serious causes of cough are tuberculosis (TB) and whooping cough (pertussis).

    Cystic fibrosis (CF). Affecting more than 30,000 kids and young adults in the United States, cystic fibrosis is the most common inherited disease affecting the lungs. Affecting primarily the respiratory and digestive systems, CF causes mucus in the body to be abnormally thick and sticky. The mucus can clog the airways in the lungs and make a person more vulnerable to bacterial infections.

    Lung cancer. Caused by an abnormal growth of cells in the lungs, lung cancer is a leading cause of death in the United States and is usually caused by smoking cigarettes. It starts in the lining of the bronchi and takes a long time to develop, so it's usually a disease in adults. Symptoms include a lasting cough that may bring up blood, chest pain, hoarseness, and shortness of breath. Radon gas (a gas that occurs in soil and rocks) exposure also might cause lung cancer. Radon is more likely to happen in certain parts of the United States. You can check your home's radon level with a radon kit available at your local home supply or hardware store.

    Pneumonia. This inflammation of the lungs usually happens because of bacterial or viral infection. Pneumonia causes fever and inflammation of lung tissue, and makes breathing difficult because the lungs have to work harder to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide from the blood. Common causes of pneumonia are influenza (the flu) and infection with the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae.

    Pulmonary hypertension. This is when the blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs is abnormally high, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood against that high pressure. Pulmonary hypertension may happen in children because of a congenital (present at birth) heart defect or because of a health condition such as HIV infection.

    Respiratory Diseases of Newborns

    Several respiratory conditions can affect a newborn baby just starting to breathe for the first time. Premature babies are at increased risk for conditions such as:

  • Respiratory distress syndrome of the newborn. Babies born prematurely may not have enough surfactant in the lungs. Surfactant helps to keep the baby's alveoli open; without surfactant, the lungs collapse and the baby is unable to breathe.
  • Apnea of prematurity (AOP). Apnea is a medical term that means someone has stopped breathing. Apnea of prematurity (AOP) is a condition in which premature infants stop breathing for 15 to 20 seconds during sleep. AOP usually happens 2 days to 1 week after a baby is born. The lower the infant's weight and level of prematurity at birth, the more likely the baby is to have AOP spells.
  • Although some respiratory diseases can't be prevented, many chronic lung and respiratory illnesses can be prevented by avoiding smoking, staying away from pollutants and irritants, washing hands often to avoid infection, and getting regular medical checkups.

  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). BPD involves abnormal development of lung tissue. Sometimes called chronic lung disease, or CLD, it's a disease in infants characterized by inflammation and scarring in the lungs. It develops most often in premature babies who are born with underdeveloped lungs.
  • Meconium aspiration. Meconium aspiration is when a newborn inhales (aspirates) a mixture of meconium (baby's first feces, ordinarily passed after birth) and amniotic fluid during labor and delivery. The inhaled meconium can cause a partial or complete blockage of the baby's airways.
  • Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN). In the uterus, a baby's circulation bypasses the lungs. Normally, when a baby is born and begins to breathe air, his or her body quickly adapts and begins the process of respiration. PPHN is when a baby's body doesn't make that transition from fetal circulation to newborn circulation. This condition can cause symptoms such as rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, respiratory distress, and cyanosis (blue-tinged skin).
  • Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN). Rapid breathing in a full-term newborn (more than 60 breaths a minute) is called transient tachypnea.


Although some respiratory diseases can't be prevented, many chronic lung and respiratory illnesses can be prevented by avoiding smoking, staying away from pollutants and irritants, washing handsoften to avoid infection, and getting regular medical checkups.
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