When your child breathes, the air goes down his or her main windpipe (trachea) and through the bronchi into the lungs. The bronchi are the 2 tubes that lead from the trachea to the left and right lungs. If the bronchi get irritated and inflamed, they can narrow. This is because the muscles around the air passages go into spasm. This makes it hard to breathe. This condition is called bronchospasm.
Bronchospasm can be caused by many things. These include allergies, asthma, a respiratory infection, exercise, or reaction to a medicine.
Bronchospasm makes it hard to breathe out. It causes wheezing when exhaling. In severe cases, it is hard to breathe in or out. Wheezing is a whistling sound caused by breathing through narrowed airways. Bronchospasm can also cause frequent coughing without the wheezing sound. A child with bronchospasm may cough, wheeze, or be short of breath. The inflamed area creates mucus. The mucus can partially block the airways. The chest muscles can tighten. The child can also have a fever.
A child with bronchospasm may be given medicine to take at home. A child with severe bronchospasm may need to stay in the hospital for 1 or more nights. There, he or she is given IV (intravenous) fluids, breathing treatments, and oxygen.
Children with asthma often get bronchospasm. But not all children with bronchospasm have asthma. If a child has repeated bouts of bronchospasm, then he or she may need to be tested for asthma.
Follow these guidelines when caring for your child at home:
- Your child's healthcare provider may prescribe medicines. Follow all instructions for giving these to your child. Don’t give your child any medicines that have not been approved by the provider. Your child may be prescribed bronchodilator medicine. This is to help with breathing. It may come as an inhaler with a spacer, or a liquid that is made into an aerosol by a machine, then breathed in. Have your child use the medicine exactly at the times advised.
- Don’t give a child under age 6 cough or cold medicine unless the healthcare provider tells you to do so.
- Know the warning signs of a bronchospasm attack. These can include cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, irritability, restless sleep, fever, and cough. Your child may have no interest in feeding. Learn what medicines to give if you see these signs.
- Wash your hands well with soap and warm water before and after caring for your child. This is to help prevent spreading infection.
- Give your child plenty of time to rest.
- Children 1 year and older: Have your child sleep in a slightly upright position. This is to help make breathing easier. If possible, raise the head of the bed slightly. Or raise your older child’s head and upper body up with extra pillows. Talk with your healthcare provider about how far to raise your child's head.
- Babies younger than 12 months: Never use pillows or put your baby to sleep on their stomach or side. Babies younger than 12 months should sleep on a flat surface on their back. Don't use car seats, strollers, swings, baby carriers, and baby slings for sleep. If your baby falls asleep in one of these, move them to a flat, firm surface as soon as you can.
- To prevent dehydration and help loosen lung mucus in toddlers and older children, have your child drink plenty of liquids. Children may prefer cold drinks, frozen desserts, or frozen ice pops. They may also like warm chicken soup or drinks with lemon and honey. Don’t give honey to a child younger than 1 year old.
- To prevent dehydration and help loosen lung mucus in babies, have your child drink plenty of liquids. Use a medicine dropper, if needed, to give small amounts of breastmilk, formula, or clear liquids to your baby. Give 1 to 2 teaspoons every 10 to 15 minutes. A baby may only be able to feed for short amounts of time. If you are breastfeeding, pump and store milk to use later. Give your child oral rehydration solution between feedings. These are available from the drugstore.
- Don’t smoke around your child. Tobacco smoke can make your child’s symptoms worse.
Follow up with your child’s healthcare provider, or as advised.
Special note to parents
Don’t give cough and cold medicines to any child under age 6. These don't help young children, and they may cause serious side effects.
When to seek medical advice
Call your child's healthcare provider or seek medical care right away if any of these occur:
- No improvement within 24 hours of treatment
- Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
- Cough with lots of thick colored mucus
- Trouble breathing that doesn’t get better, or gets worse
- Fast breathing
- Loss of appetite or poor feeding
- Signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, crying with no tears, or urinating less than normal
- More medicine than prescribed is needed to help relieve wheezing
- The medicine doesn’t relieve wheezing
- Fever (see Fever and children, below)
Fever and children
Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.
For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.
Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.
Infant under 3 months old:
- Ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.
- Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
- Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
Child age 3 to 36 months:
- Rectal, forehead (temporal artery), or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
- Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
Child of any age:
- Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider
- Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.
StayWell last reviewed this educational content on 8/1/2018