Airway Problems

Airway problems are most often the result of obstructions of the airway, consisting of the throat, voice box and trachea. These blockages prevent air from entering the lungs either partially or completely, leading to breathing difficulties and a variety of other complications, some potentially life-threatening.

Causes & Symptoms

Airway problems can occur in the upper portion of the airway (from the nose and lips to the larynx), the lower portion of the airway (from the larynx to the lungs), or both. They may be acute or chronic.

There are many conditions that can potentially lead to airway problems. These include:

  • Allergies
  • Vocal cord problems
  • Viral and bacterial infections
  • Asthma
  • Trauma
  • Foreign objects in the nose or mouth
  • Croup
  • Bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Swelling of the tongue or epiglottis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Airway problems cause general discomfort and varied symptoms including difficulty breathing, choking, gasping for air, wheezing, agitation, cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin), confusion, panic and unconsciousness.

Diagnosis & Treatment

In order to diagnose an airway problem, your doctor may order certain tests including x-rays, laryngoscopy (examination of your larynx with a scope) and bronchoscopy (inspection of your lungs with a scope).

Treatment varies depending on the cause. Medications or surgery are effective solutions for certain conditions. Sometimes, a more immediate solution is necessary. If you are choking on food lodged in your throat, the Heimlich maneuver is effective in dislodging foreign objects. In order to deliver oxygen and bypass swollen airways, your doctor may rely on endotracheal or nasotracheal tubes, or tracheostomy and cricothyrotomy – openings in the airway. Swelling may respond to epinephrine. Emergency situations may require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).