Airway Obstruction

Also known as: Upper airway obstruction, lower airway obstruction, partial airway obstruction, complete airway obstruction, blockage of the airway and many others.

What is airway obstruction?

The airway of the respiratory tract are the tubes that allow the passage of air from your mouth and nose to pass to the lungs with breathing.

They are divided into upper airway obstructions:

  • Nose
  • Throat-naso and oro-pharynx
  • Mouth
  • Larynx (voice box)

And lower airway obstructions:

  • Trachea
  • Bronchi
  • Airways (or respiratory tract)

Airway obstructions can occur in any of the part of the airway. These obstructions can range from mild to severe and/or be life-threatening, and may occur acutely, over a short time period, or chronically, over a longer time frame.

What causes airway obstruction?

Upper airway obstruction is most often caused by infections but there are a large number of other infectious causes, like:
  • Bacterial infected tonsils
  • Mononucleosis
  • Epiglottitis
  • Diphtheria
  • and others

Trauma, foreign bodies (food/toys/batteries), burns, chemicals and congenital abnormalities of the airway (in infants) also need to be considered.

Lower airway obstruction is frequently due to:

  • Tracheomalacia (in infants)
  • Tracheitis
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Asthma
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Burns
  • and foreign bodies 

What are the symptoms of airway obstruction?

Upper airway obstruction is characterized by low pitched noisy breathing when the infant/child breathes in (stridor).

Lower airway obstruction by a high pitched noise (wheeze) when the infant/child breathes out.

Both kinds of airway obstruction give rise to cough, fast breathing, fast heartbeat, struggle to breathe (retractions between the ribs with breathing), and when very severe may lead to agitation, loss of muscle activity, unconsciousness and even death.

What are airway obstruction care options?

Treatment will vary based on the position, severity and cause of the airway obstruction.

For both upper or lower  airway obstruction relieving the obstruction and providing breathing support (oxygen), fluids intravenously, and where appropriate antibiotics and/or other medications as needed is most important.

Providing an artificial airway (endotracheal tube/tracheostomy) and/or breathing machine (ventilator) to support breathing, and reconstructive airway surgery may potentially be required.

Reviewed by: Jack Wolfsdorf, MD, FAAP

This page was last updated on: December 28, 2021 11:59 AM