Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine - Just the Facts, 3ed.


Kathleen M. Adelgais



images Diseases that cause upper respiratory tract (URT) obstruction account for a significant number of pediatric emergency department visits. While some diseases of the URT are common and benign, others, although rare, can be life threatening.

images Most causes of stridor among children younger than 6 months of age are a result of congenital abnormalities while stridor in older children is typically caused by acquired illnesses. Table 71-1 lists the common acquired causes of stridor.

TABLE 71-1 Common Acquired Causes of Stridor



images Stridor is the physical sign common to all causes of URT obstruction and can be inspiratory, expiratory, or mixed.

images Stridor results from Venturi effects created by airflow through a narrow semicollapsible airway. With inhalation, the relative pressure in the center of the tube becomes greater than at the edges; the pressure differential leads to collapse of airway walls, obstruction, and turbulent airflow creating the sound of stridor.

images Resistance is inversely proportion to the fourth power of the airway radius during laminar gas flow and the fifth power during turbulent flow. In the normal pediatric subglottis, 1 mm of edema will reduce its cross-sectional area by 50%.

images As air progresses from the supraglottic to the glottic and subglottic areas and finally the trachea, there is an increase in physiologic support structure that decreases the amount of collapse that occurs during inspiration. These structures (eg, tracheal rings) are less developed in young infants.

images Expiratory stridor, or wheeze, is common in distal airways since intrathoracic pressure may become much greater than atmospheric pressure during expiration. The pressure differential creates high relative laminar flow through semicollapsible bronchi, resulting in wheezes.


images Inspiratory stridor indicates obstruction at or above the larynx (ie, supraglottic). There is often marked inspiratory and expiratory variation.

images Glottic and subglottic obstructions commonly cause both inspiratory and expiratory stridor of lesser magnitudes. Obstruction at the level of the trachea and primary bronchi may be associated with inspiratory or expiratory stridor, but usually to a much lesser degree.

images Expiratory stridor usually implies obstruction below the carina.

images Hypoxia may be present with or without cyanosis, which depends on the hemoglobin level and peripheral circulation. Cyanosis in upper airway obstruction is an ominous sign.

images Tachypnea, retractions (subcostal, intercostal, supraclavicular), and nasal flaring or head bobbing, are signs of labored respirations.

images Grunting is a valuable diagnostic sign as it localizes disease to the lower respiratory tract and correlates with disease severity.


images The diagnosis of upper airway obstruction is clinical through observation of signs of increased work of breathing and stridor.

images The differential diagnosis is aided by considering the age of the patient and duration of symptoms.

images Children less than 6 months old with a long duration of symptoms characteristically have a congenital cause of stridor. Common congenital causes of stridor include laryngomalacia, tracheomalacia, vocal cord paralysis, and subglottic stenosis. Less common, but important causes include airway hemangiomas, vascular rings, and slings.

images Patients over 6 months of age with a short duration of symptoms characteristically have an acquired cause of stridor such as viral croup, epiglottitis, foreign body aspiration, peritonsillar abscess, or retropharyngeal abscess.

images The differential diagnosis and disease severity determine further diagnostic testing, which may include imaging (eg, soft-tissue neck and chest radiography or CT, barium swallow), blood work (eg, CBC, blood cultures), or endoscopy.



images Laryngomalacia accounts for 60% of all neonatal laryngeal problems.

images After tracheomalacia, vocal cord paralysis is the most common causes of neonatal stridor.


images Laryngomalacia is caused by a developmentally weak larynx, which results in airway collapse at the epiglottis, aryepiglottic folds, and arytenoids during inspiration.

images Vocal cord paralysis may be congenital or acquired. There may be a history of birth trauma, shoulder dystocia, macrosomia, forceps delivery, or other intrathoracic anomaly.


images Stridor from laryngomalacia worsens with crying or agitation and improves with neck extension or when prone.

images Laryngomalacia is usually a self-limited disorder that resolves in 90% of cases by 18 months of age.

images Stridor from vocal cord paralysis is typically chronic and may worsen with agitation or secondary viral infection; signs of respiratory distress or cyanosis may be present.


images A presumptive diagnosis can be made clinically, though definitive diagnosis is made by fiberscopic laryngeal examination.

images The differential diagnosis includes tracheomalacia, vascular anomalies, foreign body, and infectious causes of stridor.


images Laryngomalacia is usually a self-limiting disease and is only rarely associated with respiratory failure, failure to thrive, apnea, or feeding problems.

images Patients with respiratory failure and vocal cord paralysis require cautious airway management: endotracheal intubation can be quite difficult in a child with bilateral cord paralysis. Placing the bevel of the tube parallel to the small remaining glottic opening and rotating the tube one-quarter turn with gentle pressure may facilitate passing the tube. Force should never be applied since this may cause damage to laryngeal structures.

images Minimally symptomatic patients with lifelong stridor and no signs of distress or hypoxia can be referred to outpatient pediatric otolaryngology for definitive diagnosis.

images Patients with signs of respiratory distress or hypoxia should be admitted to the hospital.



images Viral croup is responsible for most cases of stridor after the neonatal period, and is usually a benign, self-limited disease, though it can rarely cause life-threatening airway obstruction.

images Children ages 6 months to 3 years are most commonly affected, with a peak at age 12 to 24 months. Croup is rare after 6 years of age but can occur as late as 12 to 15 years of age.

images Croup is seasonal and occurs mainly in late fall and early winter in North America.


images Croup is caused by a number of viral infections, parainfluenza (I, II, and III) being the most common; influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), adenovirus, enterovirus, rhinovirus, and metapneumovirus can also cause croup.

images Transmission is usually airborne with infection entering the nose and pharynx and spreading to the larynx and trachea.

images Inflammation and edema result from viral invasion and cytotoxicity, particularly in the subglottic larynx and trachea around the cricoid cartilage, leading to upper airway obstruction.

images Spasmodic croup results from subglottic edema that may be related to allergy or viral infection.


images Croup typically begins with a 1- to 5-day prodrome of cough and coryza, which is followed by a 3- to 4-day period of classic barking cough, stridor, and hoarseness. Symptoms peak on days 3 to 4 and then wane.

images Spasmodic croup is typically sudden in onset and occurs at night without antecedent symptoms of infection; it may be recurrent.

images Croup represents a spectrum of illness from barking cough to stridor at rest with associated labored breathing and hypoxia.


images The diagnosis of croup is clinical.

images Physical examination classically reveals a barking cough with or without stridor, which is classically inspiratory but can be biphasic. Stridor may occur with crying or at rest, and may be associated with signs of increased work of breathing.

images Laboratory and radiographic studies are not necessary for typical croup, though may aid in the differential diagnosis, which includes epiglottitis, bacterial tracheitis, or foreign body aspiration.

images If obtained, a lateral neck and chest radiograph may demonstrate that the normally squared shoulders of the subglottic tracheal air shadow are shaped like a pencil tip, hourglass, or steeple. This “steeple sign” is neither sensitive nor specific for croup.


images Place patients on pulse oximetry and administer oxygen for hypoxia.

images Give dexamethasone 0.15 to 0.6 milligram/kg (10 milligrams max) PO or IM. The IV form of dexamethasone may be given orally, is concentrated and thus smaller volume, and is well tolerated. Nebulized budesonide (2 milligrams) may be clinically useful in moderate to severe cases. Even patients with mild croup have been shown to benefit from steroids.

images Administer nebulized racemic epinephrine, 0.05 mL/kg/dose up to 0.5 mL of 2.25% solution, for patients with stridor at rest and signs of respiratory distress. Alternatively L-epineprhine (1:1000) 0.5 mL/kg (max 5 mL) can be used. Children with stridor associated only with agitation do not need epinephrine.

images Helium plus oxygen (Heliox) in a 70:30 mixture may prevent the need for intubation in children with severe croup. Heliox is only effective to a maximum concentration of oxygen of 40%, and is therefore not useful in patients requiring additional oxygen for hypoxia.

images Although intubation should be performed whenever clinically indicated, when treated aggressively, less than 1% of admitted patients require intubation. When necessary, consider using smaller endotracheal tubes than recommended to avoid trauma to inflamed mucosa.

images Most patients can be safely discharged to home if they meet criteria listed in Table 71-2.

images Children with persistent stridor at rest, tachypnea, retractions, and hypoxia or those who require more than two treatments of epinephrine should be admitted to the hospital.

TABLE 71-2 Criteria for Discharge from ED in Patients with Croup




images Epiglottitis is life threatening and can occur at any age. Since the introduction of Haemophilus influenzae vaccine the incidence and demographics have changed remarkably, with less than 25% of cases caused by Haemophilus, and a median age of presentation shifting to older children and adults.

images In immunized children, most cases are caused by gram-positive organisms, including Streptococcus pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pneumoniae.

images In immunocompromised children, herpes, Candida, and varicella can cause epiglottitis.


images Classically there is abrupt onset of high fever, sore throat, and drooling. Symptoms may rapidly progress to stridor and respiratory distress. Cough may be absent.

images Patients usually appear toxic and may assume a tripod or sniffing position to maintain their airway.

images Symptoms in older children and adults may be subtle; severe sore throat, with or without stridor may be the primary complaint.


images The diagnosis is clinical and suggested by severe sore throat, a normal-appearing oropharynx, and tenderness with gentle movement of the hyoid.

images Radiographs are usually unnecessary in patients with a classic presentation.

images When the diagnosis is uncertain, lateral neck radiographs should be obtained with the neck extended during inspiration. The normal epiglottis is tall and thin, but appears swollen, squat, and flat like a thumb-print when inflamed (Fig. 71-1).

images False-negative radiographs can occur, and if clinical suspicion exists, direct visualization of the epiglottis, preferably in the operating room with anesthesiology and otolaryngology present.

images Blood cultures are positive in up to 90% of patients, while cultures from the epiglottis are less sensitive.

images A CBC may reveal leukocytosis and left shift.


FIG. 71-1. Lateral neck view of a child with epiglottitis. (Courtesy of W. McAlister, MD, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO.)


images Anticipation of airway loss is of primary importance in epiglottitis, and preparation for emergent advanced airway management (medical and surgical) should take place early; patients should be accompanied by a physician if moved to a radiograph suite.

images Keep patients seated and upright. Provide oxygen and administer nebulized racemic or L-epinephrine. Consider heliox if available.

images If total airway obstruction or apnea occurs, children with epiglottitis sometimes can be effectively ventilated with a bag-valve-mask device.

images The most experienced individual should perform intubation as soon as the diagnosis is made. Ensure that multiple endotracheal tube sizes are immediately available. Use of paralytics in the patient who is able to maintain their airway must be accompanied by the certainty that intubation will be successful or that a surgical airway can immediately be performed if unsuccessful.

images Only after airway management should intravenous (IV) antibiotics be considered. Empiric broad-spectrum antibiotic choices include cefuroxime 50 milligrams/kg IV per dose, cefotaxime 50 milligrams/kg IV per dose, or ceftriaxone 50 milligrams/kg IV per dose. In regions with increased cephalosporin resistance, add vancomycin 10 milligrams/kg/dose.

images Administer methylprednisolone 1 milligram/kg IV every 6 hours or dexamethasone 0.15 to 0.6 milligram/kg IV.

images All patients with epiglottitis require hospitalization, typically in intensive care.



images Bacterial tracheitis (membranous laryngotracheobronchitis) is rare and caused by bacterial infection of the trachea, often following viral upper respiratory infection.

images Tracheitis is more common in children under 3, but can occur in children 3 months to 13 years of age.

images Common pathogens include S. aureus, S. pneumoniae, or β-lactamase-producing gram-negative organisms (H. influenzae and Moraxella catarrhalis).


images Symptoms of tracheitis resemble severe croup or epiglottitis.

images Patients often appear toxic, and may have cough, stridor (inspiratory and expiratory), hoarseness, and occasionally thick sputum production.

images Dysphagia is uncommon with tracheitis.


images Radiographs of the lateral neck and chest usually demonstrate subglottic narrowing of the trachea, and an irregular “shaggy” boarder (Fig. 71-2).

images Bacterial cultures of tracheal secretions and blood may identify a pathogen and antibiotic sensitivities; a CBC may reveal leukocytosis.


FIG. 71-2. Lateral neck view of patient with bacterial tracheitis. Note presence of irregular tracheal margins (arrows). (Courtesy of W. McAlister, MD, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO.)


images Management is similar to that of epiglottitis, with primary attention to airway and anticipation of airway loss. Greater than 85% of patients ultimately require intubation. As with epiglottitis, ideal intubating conditions include an operating room for sedation, paralysis, intubation, and bronchoscopy. The emergency department physician must be prepared to perform emergent intubation and should prepare multiple endotracheal tube sizes.

images Initial antibiotic choices include ampicillin/sulbactam 50 milligrams/kg/dose IV, or the combination of a third-generation cephalosporin such as ceftriaxone 50 milligrams/kg IV per dose and clindamycin 10 milligrams/kg/dose. In areas with increasing S. aureus resistance, consider vancomycin 10 milligrams/kg IV every 6 hours.



images Retropharyngeal abscesses, although rare, are the second most common deep neck infection, usually occurring in children aged 6 months to 6 years of age.

images Infection in the retropharyngeal space can be caused by aerobic organisms (eg, β-hemolytic streptococci and S. aureus) anaerobes (eg, Bacteroides), and gram-negative organisms (eg, Haemophilus).

images The incidence of retropharyngeal abscess appears to be increasing in the United States in recent years.


images Patients usually present with fever, sore throat, neck pain, drooling, dysphagia/odynophagia. Dysphagia and refusal to feed occur before significant respiratory distress.

images Patients typically appear toxic and neck swelling or torticollis may be noted on examination along with drooling.

images Rapidly fatal airway obstruction from sudden rupture of the abscess pocket can occur.

images Aspiration pneumonia, empyema, mediastinitis, and erosion into the jugular vein and carotid artery have been reported.


images Physical examination of the pharynx may demonstrate posterior pharyngeal fullness. Additional examination findings include nuchal rigidity or torticollis, cervical adenopathy, drooling, and fever.

images Plain radiographs of the lateral neck during inspiration may show a widened retropharyngeal space; the diagnosis is suggested when the retropharyngeal space at C2 is twice the diameter of the vertebral body or greater than one-half the width of C4.

images CT of the neck with IV contrast is thought to be near 100% sensitive and is the diagnostic study of choice.

images Blood tests are rarely helpful for diagnosis or acute management.


images Immediate airway stabilization is the first priority. Unstable patients should be intubated before performing imaging.

images Empiric antibiotic choice is controversial since most retropharyngeal abscesses contain mixed flora. Consider broad-spectrum coverage with ampicillin-sulbactam, 200 milligrams/kg/d divided every 6 hours, and/or clindamycin 25 to 40 milligrams/kg IV divided every 6 hours. In penicillin-allergic patients, clindamycin and a third-generation cephalosporin are recommended.

images Steroids may reduce airway inflammation and prevent progression of cellulitis to abscess.

images Consult otolaryngology for operative incision and drainage; although cellulitis and some very small abscesses may improve with antibiotics alone, most require surgery.



images Peritonsillar abscesses occur most frequently in adolescents and young adults.

images Most are unilateral, with <10% becoming bilateral.


images Symptoms include fever, sore throat (often unilateral), dysphagia, odynophagia, and neck pain.

images Patients usually appear acutely ill with fever, and may have trismus, drooling, and a muffled “hot potato” voice. The uvula is displaced away from the affected side. As a rule the affected tonsil is anteriorly and medially displaced.


images Careful visualization of the oral cavity can reliably confirm or exclude peritonsillar abscess in most cases The presence of uvular deviation, soft palate displacement, trismus, airway compromise, or localized areas of fluctuance are sufficient for diagnosis and no imaging is required.

images For ambiguous cases computed tomography (CT) or ultrasound (US) of the neck may be helpful.


images The majority of cases can be safely treated in the ED with needle drainage followed by outpatient antibiotics and analgesics.

images Formal incision and drainage in the operating room is sometimes necessary, especially in young or uncooperative patients.

images Parenteral antibiotic choices include clindamycin 10 milligrams/kg IV or ampicillin-sulbactam 50 milligrams/kg; oral options include amoxicillin/clavulanate 45 milligrams/kg/d divided twice a day or clindamycin 10 to 20 milligrams/kg/d divided every 6 to 8 hours.

images Close outpatient follow-up is essential for all discharged patients.



images Foreign body (FB) aspirations cause over 3000 deaths each year, and have a peak incidence between ages 1 and 3 years. In children under 6 months of age, the cause is usually secondary to a feeding by a well-meaning sibling.

images Commonly aspirated foreign bodies include foods and toys.


images Clinical symptoms and signs depend on the size and location of the aspirated foreign body and range from mild coughing to acute airway obstruction and respiratory failure. Many patients are completely asymptomatic.

images Classic teaching is that an FB in the laryngotracheal area causes stridor, whereas a bronchial FB causes wheezing. There is significant overlap in symptoms, however, and wheeze is present in 30% of laryngotracheal FB aspirations, and stridor in up to 10% of bronchial aspirations.


images A high index of suspicion is required to diagnose FB aspiration. Since as many as one-third of the aspirations are not witnessed or remembered by the parent, FB aspirations should be considered in all children with unilateral wheezing or persistent symptoms that do not respond to standard bronchodilator therapy.

images Plain chest radiograph can be normal: >50% of tracheal FB, 25% of bronchial FB, and more than 75% of FB in children < 3 years of age are radiolucent. In cases of complete obstruction, atelectasis may be found. In partial obstructions, air trapping with asymmetric hyperinflation of the obstructed lung may occasionally be seen. There is little additional value to expiratory or decubitus views.

images Definitive diagnosis requires laryngoscopy or bronchoscopy in the operating room, which should be considered in any patient with a history of choking, asymmetric breath sounds, or suggestive findings on chest radiograph.

images The differential diagnosis of upper airway foreign body includes esophageal foreign body: radiographically, flat foreign bodies such as coins are usually oriented in the sagittal plane when located in the trachea (ie, appears as a thick line in an antero-posterior chest radiograph) and in the coronal plane when in the esophagus (ie, appears round on an anteroposterior chest radiograph).


images If FB aspiration or airway obstruction is clearly present, BLS procedures to relieve airway obstruction should be implemented immediately.

images If BLS maneuvers fail, perform direct laryngoscopy and attempt to remove the FB with Magill forceps. If the FB cannot be seen, orotracheal intubation with distal displacement of the FB into a bronchus may be lifesaving.

images Consider racemic epinephrine or Heliox for patients with stridor and respiratory distress as a temporizing measure.

images Definitive treatment usually requires rigid laryngoscopy or bronchoscopy under general anesthesia.

images Foreign bodies in the proximal airways require immediate treatment while distal foreign bodies may be removed in the outpatient setting after consultation with subspecialists when reliable follow-up can be ensured.

For further reading in Tintinalli’s Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7th ed., see Chapter 119, “Stridor and Drooling,” by Joseph D. Gunn III.