Grunting, Sighing, and Asthma

Expert Q&A

A Toddler Walking Up Steps
Does your toddler have any signs or symptoms of asthma?. Photo (c) Rose Hayes

Q. My 19 month old son tends to grunt when he breathes. He inhales, holds his breath for a second or two, then exhales and repeats. His breathing is normal when he sleeps, but we have noticed during the day this grunting pattern. He doesn't seem to be in pain, but that is what it sounds like. His 18 month visit to the doctor was normal. Does anyone else have this issue? What causes this? Deonna, Pearland, Texas

A. Grunting is usually considered a sign that a child is having trouble breathing.

Signs of Trouble Breathing

By grunting, they are able to raise the pressure in their lungs more than they can from a normal breath, and get more air into their lungs. Other kids do a similar thing by sighing.

Other signs or symptoms that a child may be having trouble breathing (respiratory distress) include:

  • a fast breathing rate (tachypnea)
  • cyanosis, with a bluish discoloration of a child's skin
  • nasal flaring
  • retractions, with a child's chest sinking in just below her neck and/or beneath her ribs
  • wheezing, a tight musical or whistling sound that may be heard when a child breaths in or out
  • stridor, a harsh, high pitched sound that is heard when a child, usually with croup, breaths in
  • a non-stop cough

These signs can be seen in children with pneumonia, asthma, croup, and other lung problems.

Grunting and Sighing

So what is making her have this 'grunting pattern' of breathing?

Without her having other symptoms, like coughing and wheezing, it is hard to tell.

Sighing is thought to sometimes be a sign of asthma. Other experts have found these kinds of sighing breaths in people with well controlled asthma.

Has she ever had problems with asthma?

Does asthma or allergies run in the family?

Did she recently choke on something, which may have gotten stuck in her lungs, like a piece of popcorn or a peanut?

Even without other symptoms, you likely should see your pediatrician again for a recheck. A chest xray might also be a good idea.

If your pediatrician is unclear what might be causing the grunting and it persists, an evaluation by a Pediatric Pulmonologist (child lung specialist) might also be helpful.

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