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10 Signs of Pediatric Respiratory Distress

Pediatric respiratory distress describes symptoms related to breathing problems that prevent a child from taking enough oxygen into the lungs and body. This condition can be triggered by infections, chronic illnesses, or a blocked airway. In this article, we’ll highlight ten common signs of pediatric respiratory distress and outline a few at-home interventions that can help.

10 Signs of pediatric respiratory distress

Child fatigues not alert

If you’re concerned that your child is experiencing pediatric respiratory distress, look for the following classic signs that could indicate they are not getting enough oxygen: 

  1. Alertness changes – Acting more tired or less alert 
  2. Breathing or heart rate increase – More breaths or heartbeats per minute than usual
  3. Grunting – A grunting sound when exhaling
  4. Nasal flaring – Nostrils spread open during breathing
  5. Neck muscle use – Muscles of the neck move during inhales
  6. Retraction – The chest sinks below the neck or under the breastbone 
  7. Skin color changes – Mouth, inside the lips, or fingernails appear blue, dusty, pale, or grey
  8. Stridor – Noisy breaths when inhaling
  9. Sweating – Sweat on the head when the skin may be cool or clammy
  10. Wheezing – A tight, whistling, or musical sound with each breath

Some of these signs of pediatric respiratory distress can show up on their own or with other symptoms, such as fever or congestion. In either case, contact your child’s primary care pediatrician immediately and let them know which signs you’ve noticed.

Call 9-1-1 or visit the nearest emergency room if your child is working hard to breathe or you think their life is in danger. 

Home interventions for pediatric respiratory distress 

Depending on the cause of pediatric respiratory distress, your child’s doctor may prescribe one of the following home respiratory support therapies:

Oxygen therapy 

Supplemental oxygen therapy uses a concentrator or tank to deliver a steady stream of oxygen to your child’s body. It has a small tube with prongs called a nasal cannula, which you position gently under their nose and around their head. The two prongs go into their nostrils. Your child’s pediatrician may also prescribe a pulse-oximeter. This tool monitors their oxygen level and pulse rate to ensure your child is getting the precise oxygen level they need. The readings can let you know when your child may be experiencing pediatric respiratory distress so that you can adjust the oxygen flow rate as needed. However, if you’re not able to return the flow rate to its original position within a short period, contact your child’s pediatrician for guidance.

Nebulizer treatments

Another home intervention for pediatric respiratory distress is nebulizer treatments. A nebulizer is a specialized device that is sometimes called a breathing machine because it turns a liquid solution into a fine mist that makes it easy for a child to inhale. Nebulizers are often used to treat pediatric conditions, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), asthma, croup, cystic fibrosis, and pneumonia. Your child’s pediatrician will prescribe nebulizer treatments at a set frequency, such as twice per day. Nebulizers are available with several delivery methods to suit your child’s age and preferences, including a face mask, pacifier attachment, and handheld mouthpiece. 

Beyond these common home respiratory support therapies, there is another intervention that doesn’t require any special equipment to administer: CPR. 


Short for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, CPR is an emergency lifesaving procedure using repetitive chest compressions and rescue breaths to keep the blood flow active until medical personnel arrive. While you may never have to use this intervention, CPR is a vital skill for the rare instance when a child is suffering from severe pediatric respiratory distress. As respiratory therapists, we offer basic CPR training for our medical equipment users and families upon request. To attend a certifiable training, visit the Red Cross or the American Heart Association to find one of the many CPR classes in the Delaware Valley area.

We carry all the industry-leading high-tech medical equipment brands to treat pediatric respiratory distress, and most qualify for health insurance coverage. Our compassionate and highly skilled Respiratory Therapists and staff provide in-depth training to ensure you and your child feel comfortable using the respiratory equipment. With long-standing relationships with many of the Delaware Valley’s pediatric physicians, think of us as a collaborative advisor on your child’s health care team. To learn more about us and our advanced solutions for pediatric respiratory distress, contact our medical equipment experts today. 

10 Signs of Pediatric Respiratory Distress