Stridor is a noisy or high-pitched wheezing or whistling sound that occurs when you breathe in (inhale) or out (exhale), or both. It is a sign that the upper airway is partially blocked or narrowed, restricting airflow between the mouth and the lungs. It may involve the nose, mouth, sinuses, voice box (larynx), or windpipe (trachea).

Stridor affects both children and adults. Because a child’s upper airway shorter and narrower than that of an adult, a child is more likely to have problems with blockage of the airway.

Some of the more common causes of stridor in children are:

Congenital stridor, defects in the child’s nose and throat, larynx, or trachea that the child was born with

  • Infections such as croup, epiglottitis, or tonsillitis , and abscesses in the back of the throat
  • Swallowing toxic substances
  • Pieces of food or small objects that get caught in the upper airway
  • Injuries to the jaw or neck

The most common causes of stridor in adults are:

  • Vocal cord paralysis
  • Subglottic stenosis, a narrowing of the airway below the vocal cords
  • Inhaling a piece of food
  • A foreign object stuck in the airway
  • Vascular rings that occur when an outer artery or vein compresses the windpipe

Other conditions may also cause stridor at any age. For example, problems with the brain may interfere with normal breathing. An allergic reaction may cause swelling of the airways. And tumors may narrow or block the airway.

If left untreated, stridor can block the airway, which can be life-threatening or even cause death. Don’t wait to see if symptoms go away without treatment. Call your healthcare provider if you or your child makes a noisy or high-pitched sound while breathing.

Why Choose Us to Treat Stridor

With their advanced training and experience, Cooper’s team of otolaryngologists—ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists—are uniquely qualified to treat children and adults with this condition, and they have a proven track record of successful outcomes.

In addition, our ENT specialists are proficient in today’s most advanced minimally invasive surgical techniques, including transoral robotic surgery (TORS) and transoral laser microsurgery (TOLM).

Risk Factors for Stridor

  • The risk factors for stridor include:
  • Structural airway defects that are present at birth
  • Infections
  • Foreign objects, including pieces of food, that are stuck in the airway
  • Trauma or injury to the jaw or neck
  • Being on a mechanical ventilator (breathing machine) for an extended period

Children are at greater risk for stridor because they have narrower, shorter and softer airways than adults.

Symptoms of Stridor

The main symptom of stridor is the noise that’s heard while breathing.

Call 9-1-1 or get medical help right away if you, your child, or anyone of any age has signs or symptoms of severe blockage of the airway, which include.

  • Gasping for air, choking
  • Nostrils widening when breathing
  • Sinking in of the areas between the ribs when breathing
  • Change in behavior
  • Bluish-colored skin
  • Loss of consciousness

How Stridor Is Diagnosed

The healthcare provider will ask about your or your child’s symptoms and health history, and perform a physical exam. The provider may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT). 

The healthcare provider may also order tests, which can include:

  • X-rays of the chest and neck 
  • CT scan or MRI scan for a more detailed look at the anatomy of the chest and neck
  • Laryngoscopy, in which a special instrument is used to check the back of the throat and larynx (voice box) 
  • Bronchoscopy, in which a special instrument is used to check the airway (throat, larynx, trachea, and bronchi, the tubes leading into the lungs)
  • Spirometry, an easy test that checks how much air is breathed in and out, and how quickly the air is breathed out
  • Pulse oximetry to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood; a small sensor is placed on a finger or toe
  • Sputum culture, in which a sample of the material (sputum) coughed up from the lungs is sent to the lab to check for infection

How Stridor Is Treated

  • Treatment will depend on your or your child’s symptoms, age, general health, and how severe the condition is. Treatment may include:
  • Referral to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT)
  • Medicines by mouth or shots to help decrease the swelling in the airways or treat an infection
  • Surgery to open the airway and fix the cause of the noisy breathing
  • Our ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists use minimally invasive surgical techniques whenever possible

Contact Us

To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856.342.3113.