Airway Obstruction and Stridor

What is it?

The word "stridor" refers to the high-pitched wheezy sound a child with an airway obstruction makes when breathing. The blockage can be in the larynx (voice box) or sometimes the throat. Children are at higher risk for airway obstruction because they have narrower airways than adults. The blockage can be an object or it may be due to swelling, spasms, or structural defects in the airway.

What causes it?

One of the most common causes of stridor is laryngomalacia (soft larynx). Laryngomalacia is a very common condition in babies and occurs when the soft, immature cartilage in the voicebox collapses inward when a child breathes in.

Another common cause of stridor is croup (PDF). Croup is a disease characterized by a barking cough, hoarseness, and wheezing.

But there are many possible causes of airway obstruction in children, including:

  • an object that has been inhaled, such as a piece of candy or a small piece of a toy.
  • a substance that has been inhaled, such as smoke or chemicals, which can cause a reaction in airway tissue.
  • swelling of the airway, neck or face due to surgery, trauma, or an acute illness (such as croup or laryngitis).
  • a reaction to a prolonged period of assisted breathing via placement of a tube in the throat.
  • in rare cases, a reaction to a diagnostic test such as a bronchoscopy or a laryngoscopy.

Congenital deformities such as cleft lip and palate (PDF), choanal atresia (birth defect blocking the nose), and deformities present in children with hydrocephalus.

How is it treated?

The most common causes of stridor—laryngomalacia and croup—typically are treated with medications and other techniques and very rarely require surgery. Other causes of stridor, such as congenital deformities, are more likely to require surgery.

About surgery for airway obstruction and stridor at Children's

The ENT surgery team at Children's provides next-generation care to neonatal infants, newborns, children, and adolescents from throughout the Upper Midwest. This multidisciplinary team provides some of the most cutting-edge, delicate treatments available, including newborn surgery and minimally invasive surgery. Otolaryngology surgery is performed at Children's - Minneapolis, Children's - St. Paul, and Children's West.

  • If you are a family member looking for a Children's ENT specialist, visit Find a Doctor.
  • If you are a health professional looking for a consultation or referral information, please call Children's Physician Referral at 1-866-755-2121 (toll-free).

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