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Chronic Lung Disease in Infants - Topic Overview

How is chronic lung disease diagnosed?

There is no single test to diagnose chronic lung disease. A doctor may first suspect it if your baby has trouble breathing. The diagnosis is confirmed if your baby needs extra oxygen for at least 28 days after birth. Based on your baby's gestational age and how much longer your baby needs extra oxygen, your doctor will know how severe the disease is. Gestational age is the number of weeks since the start of pregnancy.

A doctor may order tests to rule out other causes of breathing trouble or to check for other problems caused by chronic lung disease. For example, your baby might have:

  • Blood tests, including a blood gas test, to see how well the lungs are working.
  • Lung function tests to see how much damage has been done to the lungs.
  • Heart tests, such as an echocardiogram, to see how well the heart is working.

How is it treated?

Treatment will help your baby breathe more easily. This reduces the stress on the baby's body while the lungs mature and heal on their own.

Babies with chronic lung disease are usually treated in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which is geared to the needs of premature or ill newborns. Your baby may need one or more of the following treatments, depending on how severe the disease is:

  • Oxygen therapy to help your baby breathe. Oxygen may be given through a tube in the baby's nose or mouth or through a hood over the baby's head. A machine called a ventilator can give oxygen to babies who can't breathe well on their own.
  • Medicines. For example, your baby may be given a diuretic to keep fluid from building up in the lungs or a bronchodilator to stop airway spasms. Your baby may also get medicine to prevent RSV infection.
  • An incubator to help control body temperature and protect the baby from germs.
  • An apnea monitor to detect any problems with your baby's breathing patterns.
  • Nutrition support. Babies with chronic lung disease burn a lot of calories breathing and fighting infections, so they need extra calories and protein to grow at a normal rate. They may not be able to eat from a bottle or at the breast. Instead, a high-calorie mixture may be put directly into the stomach through a tube in the nose. Or the mixture may be given through a tube in a vein (IV).

Babies who have chronic lung disease may also have other problems that need treatment, such as:

  • Pneumonia or other lung infections.
  • Narrowed or collapsed airways.
  • Bloodstream infection (sepsis).

Babies who have chronic lung disease may need to stay in the hospital from several weeks to several months.

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