How to Know When Airway Discomfort Is a Serious Problem

Allergies, a minor cold, and the flu can all cause airway discomfort. But complications from these usually minor conditions can be dangerous, especially to vulnerable people such as elders and children. Serious conditions such as aspiration, partial obstructions, pneumonia, and other disorders may also trigger airway discomfort. So when is airway discomfort a sign of a serious problem, and when is it just a passing symptom? First responders must know the difference. 


Normal vs. Worrisome Airway Discomfort 

You can’t diagnose a patient based on airway discomfort alone, but certain types of discomfort are more worrisome than others. The following symptom checklist may help guide your exam: 


  • It’s normal for breathing to feel unpleasant or annoying when someone has a cold. Truly painful breathing may signal a more serious problem. 
  • Having to work a little harder to breathe is a common side effect of respiratory illnesses. Gasping, gagging, or feeling like it’s impossible to take a breath are not. 
  • People with colds may feel a tickle or other unpleasant sensation in the throat. This often gets better with coughing or water. Feeling like there is a large object in the throat, however, may signal an obstruction.
  • Panic does not necessarily mean there is a serious obstruction. If a person continues to report difficulty breathing when calm, however, this warrants further investigation. 
  • If a person reports that they feel like there is water in their chest, or that they have intense chest pain, it could mean that they are suffering from a serious respiratory infection or disease.  
  • Coughing is often uncomfortable, but truly painful coughing accompanied by a barking sound suggests that a person may have the croup. 


Signs of Respiratory Distress 

The initial respiratory exam should also include checking for symptoms of respiratory distress. They include: 


  • Retractions or nostril flaring in newborns and young infants 
  • Cyanosis, especially of the lips, fingernails, tongue, or toes 
  • Loud breathing, including barking or wheezing sounds 
  • A very high respiratory rate 
  • Low blood pressure 
  • A patient who says they cannot get enough air 
  • Signs of hypoxia, such as a low-pulse oximeter reading 


In newborns, even mild respiratory distress can be life-threatening, and may indicate a congenital defect or a serious illness. So providers must take even subtle signs of airway problems seriously by providing stabilizing care and promptly transporting to the patient to a hospital that can manage the unique needs of pediatric patients. 


When to Intervene 

The right treatment depends on the reason for the patient’s airway discomfort. People who only report airway discomfort but show no signs of respiratory distress should still be transported. If a person is in respiratory distress, however, protecting the airway is key. Some patients will need to be suctioned, so be prepared with a variety of catheters and a portable suction machine. Some patients will also need supplemental oxygen. First responders should not hesitate to intervene, but should also avoid invasive measures unless and until they are certain that they are necessary. 


The Right Equipment Matters

Patients who require airway protection and management are already vulnerable. They may have infections or chronic illnesses that weaken their immune system, and so it’s critically important to tend to them as quickly as possible, and to use reliable airway suction that works quickly. Portable emergency suction allows you to quickly treat a patient with consistent suction no matter where they are or how difficult it is to move them. A portable device should be part of every first responder’s emergency kit. 


For help choosing the right device for your agency, download our free guide, The Ultimate Guide to Purchasing a Portable Emergency Suction Device