Breathing symptoms: the subtle signs to watch for

Mother checking temperature and breathing of her sick child

Over the last few weeks my family has been battling the usual “change of season” colds, viruses, heavy breathing and coughs. The fluctuating temperatures can be a trigger for young, sensitive airways and for those with Asthma. 

All too often in my career I have seen people miss the early and sometimes subtle breathing symptoms that indicate the severity of their asthma/illness. If this happens then they tire quickly, breathing worsens and a worrying hospital admission can happen. 

As a parent I understand that horrible, lonely feeling of having a sick child (often overnight) and being unsure if you need to get them assessed now or if you can see if they will improve on their own.

Through this blog I want to help you to be aware of some of the more subtle breathing symptoms that many people tell me they wish they had known about BEFORE their hospital admission.
When I teach people what to watch out for with breathing symptoms, I tell them to think about what they can SEE and HEAR.  I find most people can identify the symptoms that they can hear which need urgent medical assessment.

These symptoms tend to be the more obvious ones, such as noisy breathing (a wheeze, bad cough, a bark or stridor) and less words per breath (or if too young to talk difficulty feeding and breathing at the same time).  

However, it is the subtler symptoms that you can see that many don’t know about.  The “what you can see” symptoms can be a game changer for picking up concerning symptoms early.

When we are well and are breathing normally the main muscle that we use to breath is our diaphragm.  However, when something (such as asthma or a chest infection) inflames the airways and impacts breathing, the body is clever and compensates. 

To make each breath more effective the body can use extra muscles to breathe. If that happens it changes the way our breathing looks.  But just like when you exercise and use extra muscles, when you breathe using extra muscles, you tire quickly and breathing rapidly becomes less effective. This is especially true of children and so the sooner it is picked up the better.

What can help you identify if someone is using extra muscles to breathe, is the movement of the skin around their ribs and throat. You need to look at their chest and throat and watch for movement of the skin:

  • Pulling in under their ribs
  • And/or between their ribs (sometimes easiest seen down their sides)
  • And/or movement of skin at the base of their throat

Any one of these signs means that someone is working hard to breathe and needs help now before their breathing deteriorates further and the situation becomes an emergency.

Serious breathing symptoms are always best managed early. I am hoping that as we come into the colder weather the information in this blog will enable you to identify potentially serious breathing symptoms BEFORE it is an emergency situation. 

A person only needs to display one of the signs mentioned that you can hear or see to indicate that you need to get help for them. Remember to trust your instincts and have confidence in them.  Doctors and Nurses might be experts in medical matters, but YOU are the expert in your child, family and self so never be afraid to advocate for them by seeking medical help or calling an ambulance. Remember we would much rather see them early than when they are exhausted and struggling with every breath. 

How to assess breathing symptoms is just one topic that gets covered in my parent first aid courses.  If you have ever wondered “what you would do if…” I would love to see you in one of my courses to empower you with the information and practice so that you WOULD know what to do in common child related first aid situations.

My next community parent first aid course is on Sunday 27 May 2018. Click on the link below to book now! More details can be found on my website or Facebook page
You can also contact me to arrange a private course with family/friends in your home, tailored to your needs. I would love to hear from you.