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Respiratory Problems, Age 11 and Younger - Topic Overview

Home treatment can help relieve the child's symptoms. The infection usually improves on its own within a week and is gone within 14 days.

Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes your child to the risks of an allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Viral lower respiratory system infections may be mild, similar to upper respiratory system infections. An example of a possibly serious viral infection is bronchiolitis. Up to 10% of babies and children with viral infections of the lower respiratory system, such as those caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), may develop severe blockage of the air passages and require hospitalization for treatment. For more information, see the topics Acute Bronchitis, Pneumonia, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection.

The most common sites for bacterial infections in the upper respiratory system are the sinuses and throat. A sinus infection is an example of an upper respiratory bacterial infection.

Bacterial pneumonia may follow a viral illness as a secondary infection or appear as the first sign of a lower respiratory infection. In babies and small children, the first sign of infection often is rapid breathing, irritability, decreased activity, and poor feeding. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections.

Tuberculosis is a less common bacterial infection of the lower respiratory system.

Allergies are a common cause of respiratory problems. Allergy symptoms in children include:

  • Clear, runny drainage from the nose or a stuffy nose. Children often rub their noses by pushing the tip upward with the palm of the hand ("allergic salute").
  • Sneezing and watery eyes. Often there are dark circles under the eyes ("allergic shiners").
  • Irritability and loss of appetite.

Babies and small children usually do not have asthma. But the number of new cases of asthma increases with age.

  • In babies and small children, a hacking cough may be the only symptom of mild asthma.
  • If asthma worsens, symptoms may include wheezing and shortness of breath after exercise or at nighttime.
  • In severe asthma, difficulty breathing (using the neck, chest, and abdominal muscles to breathe) and a high-pitched sound when breathing (wheezing) are the most common symptoms.
  • Allergies and asthma often occur together. For more information, see the topic Asthma in Children.
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