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An Overview of Epiglottitis in Children

written by: Laura Latzko • edited by: dianahardin • updated: 2/28/2011

Epiglottitis, a breathing problem that is caused by a swollen epiglottis, causes children to have problems breathing correctly. They also exhibit other symptoms similar to a respiratory infection, such as a sore throat. Sometimes the condition can be treated with corticosteroids or antibiotics.

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    Definition

    Epiglottitis is an inflammatory condition that affects the epiglottis, a cartilage that sits in front of the trachea, a structure also known as the windpipe. When the epiglottis swells, it affects the actions of the windpipe, which leads to breathing problems.

    The condition is common in children that have not gotten their haemophilus influenzae type b shots; females of different ages are more at risk for getting epiglottitis than males, according to the Mayo Clinic. Children develop epiglottitis more than adults because their epiglottises are smaller in size than adults’. The condition can be dangerous, especially in children, because it can lead to severe respiratory problems, including respiratory failure. Youngsters can also develop other types of infections, such as meningitis, after getting epiglottitis.

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    Causes

    The haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria, or the Hib bacteria, serves as the cause of epiglottitis in children. The bacteria can also cause children to develop Hib disease, a condition that causes bacterial forms of meningitis, a disease that affects the membranes within the brain and spinal cord. Children can spread the Hib bacteria to members of their families and other young children. Some children develop epiglottitis after getting other viral or bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, the chickenpox or ear infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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    Symptoms

    Children with epiglottitis often have trouble breathing, especially when they are lying down. They may have to sit up or keep their mouths open when they are breathing, according to the Children’s Hospital Boston. Youngsters also regularly develop a fever, a sore throat, rapid or abnormal breathing patterns and problems swallowing when they have epiglottitis. Other symptoms that accompany the condition include bluing of the skin, drooling, the chills and difficulties speaking. Epiglottitis in children usually develops within hours after children become infected with the Hib bacteria.

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    Diagnosis and Treatment

    Parents should take their children to a doctor as soon as they suspect their kids have epiglottitis because it is a serious condition that can cause major breathing problems very quickly. Doctors usually use a medical device called a laryngoscope, a lighted, tube-like device that allows them to look at the larynx and surrounding structures, including the epiglottis. Sometimes they take tissue samples from the epiglottis to find out if the Hib bacteria is responsible for children’s condition or take x-rays to see if children’s epiglottises are inflamed.

    If bacteria is responsible for epiglottitis, doctors will usually give children antibiotics intravenously to clear up the condition and any other infections they have. Physicians also regularly give children corticosteroid intravenously to help reduce the amount of swelling in their epiglottises. For more severe forms of epiglottitis, children may have to have a tube placed in their trachea to help them breathe normally until the swelling decreases in their epiglottises.

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    Prevention

    Parents can usually prevent their children from getting epiglottitis by making sure that their children get their Hib vaccines. Children need to get three to four doses of the vaccine, starting when they are around two months old. They should get other doses when they are four months, six months and between 12 and 15 months old. Children should get the shots when they are younger because epiglottitis usually affects babies and young children under the age of six.

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    References

    “Epiglottitis,” Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/epiglottitis/DS00529

    “Epiglottitis,” Children’s Hospital Boston, http://www.childrenshospital.org/az/Site2196/mainpageS2196P0.html

    “Haemophilius Influenzae Type B (Hib) Vaccine,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/vis/downloads/vis-hib.pdf

    “Epiglottis,” Inner Body, http://www.innerbody.com/image_digeov/dige02-new2.html

    “Trachea,” Inner Body, http://www.innerbody.com/image_card06/card13.html

    “Epiglottitis,” Advanced Otolaryngology, http://www.advancedotolaryngology.com/Pages/PatientServices/1042.html

    “Epiglottitis,” Merck Manuals Online Medical Library, http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/sec23/ch272/ch272f.html

    “Epiglottitis,” U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000605.htm

    “Meningitis Questions and Answers,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/about/faq.html

    “Definition of Laryngoscope,” MedicineNet, http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=6221