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Kids and Respiratory Bugs: When to Worry

Kids and Respiratory Bugs: When to Worry

Guest Post By Genevieve Kane, MSN, RN

It can be alarming when your little one has a bad cough or cold. Unfortunately, Boston Children’s Hospital explains that it is normal for kids to develop six to ten colds yearly. This number can be even higher for kids who attend daycare.

Fortunately, the seemingly constant illnesses go down after around age six. But, in the meantime, if your young child has a bad cold or respiratory bug, here are a few signs that they may be in respiratory distress and need immediate medical care.

Kids and Respiratory Bugs

Retractions When Breathing


Retractions is the medical term used when children use additional muscles to help them breathe. For example, if a child is working harder to breathe, they may use muscles between the ribs or in their neck for breathing.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains this type of breathing looks like the rib cage is “caving in.” You may also notice an upside-down V shape under the neck.

Retractions are sometimes known as “tummy breathing,” You may also notice other symptoms alongside retractions that indicate a child is having difficulty breathing, per the AAP, such as wheezing, fast breathing, head bobbing, grunting, or nostril flaring.

Lips or Nail Beds Looking Blue

Per UpToDate, if your little one develops pale skin or a blue tinge to their lips or nails, this can be a symptom of cyanosis. UpToDate explains that cyanosis is the discoloration that happens when there isn’t enough oxygen circulating in the body, and hypoxia is the term used to describe low oxygen levels.

If your child has symptoms that their body isn’t getting enough oxygen, they need to be seen by a health care provider. 

Other places where you may see a blue tinge besides the lips or nails include:

  • Earlobes
  • Tip of the nose
  • Tongue
  • Inside the cheeks

Kids and Respiratory Bugs: When to Worry

Other Reasons to Seek Medical Help

Respiratory illnesses can cause other alarming symptoms. If you notice any of the following, per UpToDate, seek immediate medical care:

  • Any difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Grunting
  • If you notice your child pause their breathing or if they seem to stop breathing. The technical term for this is apnea, when breathing is paused for 15-20 seconds.

Additional reasons to seek medical advice or care, per UpToDate, include breathing faster than usual for your child, a cough that isn’t going away, and if the cough and congestion are causing problems with their ability to stay hydrated. For example, if you notice your child crying without tears or having fewer wet diapers, they are likely dehydrated and may need fluids from a health care provider.

If congestion is causing a cough and trouble with feeding, especially for a young baby who relies on their nose for breathing, a nasal aspirator like the NozeBot may help provide relief.

Note: This list is not exhaustive, and your child may exhibit other symptoms not listed that could indicate the need for medical attention. Bottom line—if you are concerned, reach out to a health care provider for advice or seek immediate medical attention if you are worried that the symptoms in your child may be an emergency.

what parents need to know about respiratory bugs

Trust Your Gut

Common colds will often improve through simple, supportive care such as fluids, a cool mist humidifier, over-the-counter medications when appropriate, and a nasal aspirator like the NozeBot. Remember only to provide fluids other than breastmilk or formula if your baby is old enough or you have the ok from a health care provider.

However, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is one virus that can become severe in young infants and children. While RSV is a common cause of respiratory distress in kids, other viruses can also cause severe illness.

Keep in mind, your health care team wants your child healthy and safe. If your child seems to be struggling to breathe or stops breathing at any point, seek medical care immediately or call 911.

If you are looking for more information on respiratory bugs, try these:

Genevieve Kane, MSN, RN, is a mother of four and a registered nurse with a background in pediatrics. When she's not working, you can find her cooking up tasty family dinners or keeping up with her kids on a hiking trail in her home state of Colorado.

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