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When your infant contracts a respiratory illness, her baby-sized airways fill with mucus much more easily than an older child’s or an adult’s. This can lead to wheezing, also known as “noisy breathing.” “Wheezing is primarily heard on exhaling and it has a musical quality,” says Don Hayes Jr., M.D., a pediatric pulmonologist at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington. But keep in mind that wheezing is a symptom, not a diagnosis in itself. Here, a look at the causes of wheezing:
*BRONCHIOLITIS This illness is caused by a viral infection, most commonly respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Tiny airways, called bronchioles, swell and make it difficult for a baby to breathe, and it can be life threatening if not treated.
Symptoms: Wheezing, rapid breathing, cough and fever above 100.4° F
Treatment: “If a child is eating well and sleeping, we let the virus run its course,” says Hayes. In severe cases, a baby may be hospitalized and placed on oxygen. An inhaler or a nebulizer (used to administer medication in a mist form) may also be prescribed.
*THE COMMON COLD Within the first two years of life most babies have eight to 10 of these upper respiratory viral infections.
Symptoms: Congestion, runny nose, wheezing, coughing, low fever (about 100° F)
Treatment: “Most important is to avoid all over-the-counter cold medications,” says Allen Dozor, M.D., chief of pediatric pulmonology at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. Even though symptoms usually subside within two weeks, call your pediatrician at the first wheeze, sneeze or cough from a newborn. In infants younger than 3 months, a cold can quickly develop into pneumonia, RSV or another serious condition.
*ASTHMA Difficult to diagnose in infants, asthma is a chronic lung disease in which the airways swell, tighten and produce excess mucus. “All that wheezes is by no means asthma,” says Dozor. (Thirty percent of infants cough and wheeze with a cold.)
Symptoms: Recurring wheezing
Treatment: Managing symptoms with a nebulizer or an inhaler; documenting family history (asthma has a strong genetic link).
Ease The Wheeze
■ Keep your baby away from cigarette smoke.
■ Vacuum frequently to prevent dust buildup. (A HEPA filter may help reduce dust, but overall, vacuuming is most effective when the bag is emptied frequently.)
■ Ventilate your home well to foil mold growth.
■ Wash bedding frequently in hot water to get rid of dust mites.
■ Change filters in vents and air conditioners frequently.
■ Monitor your child’s reaction when he’s around dogs and cats. If he’s wheezing or coughing, he might be allergic.