Health Library

Respiratory Distress Signs

What Are Signs of Respiratory Distress?

Children who are having a difficult time breathing often show signs that they are not getting enough oxygen, indicating respiratory distress.

Below is a list of some of the signs that may indicate that your child is not getting enough oxygen

The signs of respiratory distress may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for an evaluation and a diagnosis.

Breathing Rate

An increase in the number of breaths per minute may indicate that a person is having trouble breathing or not getting enough oxygen. The breathing rate is decided by counting the number of times the chest rises and falls within a minute. 

Color Changes

A bluish color seen on the skin around the mouth, on the inside of the lips, or on the fingernails may occur when a person is not getting as much oxygen as needed. The color of the skin may also appear pale or gray.


A grunting sound can be heard each time the person exhales. This grunting is the body’s way of getting more air into the lungs than from a normal breath.

Nose Flaring

The openings of the nose spreading open while breathing may indicate that a person is having to work harder to breathe.


The chest appears to sink in just below the neck, under the breastbone and ribs, and/or between each rib with each breath – one way of trying to bring more air into the lungs.


There may be increased sweat on the head, but the skin does not feel warm to the touch. More often, the skin may feel cool or clammy. This may happen when the breathing rate is very fast.


A tight, whistling or musical sound heard with each breath, mainly when breathing out, may indicate that the air passages may be smaller, making it more difficult to breathe. 

Last Updated 02/2020

Reviewed by Brendan Clotz, RN

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