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Causes of epiglottitis

Epiglottitis is caused by a germ, Haemophilus influenzae type B, which causes inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis.

The epiglottis sits at the top of the windpipe and stops food and liquid from getting into the windpipe when a child swallows. If it's inflamed and swollen, the epiglottis can reduce a child's air flow. This makes it very hard for a child to breathe.

Epiglottitis is much less common these days because of widespread immunisation against Haemophilus influenzae type B, which is the germ that causes it.

Epiglottitis symptoms

Epiglottitis can start very quickly. It happens mainly in toddlers and preschoolers, but can happen at any age.

Unlike croup, where children have cold symptoms before getting a barking cough and stridor, epiglottitis happens quickly in children who have been perfectly well. Within a few hours a child can be dangerously sick.

A child with epiglottitis might:

  • look toxic, pale and unwell, and have saliva drooling from his open mouth
  • have trouble swallowing
  • have difficulty breathing
  • breathe with a soft, snoring noise
  • sit well forward and refuse to lie down because it's even harder for him to breathe in that position
  • be irritable and restless
  • feel hot.

You might find it very hard to help the child feel better.

Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. If you suspect your child has it, see a doctor immediately. Do not delay - it is a matter of life and death. Take your child to the nearest hospital. If you're alone or have a long way to travel, call an ambulance.

Tests for epiglottitis

There are no specific tests for epiglottitis. A doctor can diagnose epiglottitis based on the symptoms and how quickly they started in a previously well child.

If health professionals think your child might have epiglottitis, no tests or procedures (like taking blood, measuring temperature and so on) should be done. This is because tests might distress your child and lead to a blockage in her windpipe.

Epiglottitis treatment

If you suspect your child has epiglottitis, take him immediately to a hospital.

Try to avoid upsetting your child. When children cry they breathe harder, and this can make any airway blockages worse. If you can, calm and reassure your child instead.

Your child will probably have a breathing tube inserted into her nose to help her breathe. She'll also get antibiotics directly into her vein through a drip.

Prevention of epiglottitis

You can prevent epiglottitis by having your child immunised against Haemophilus influenzae type b. This is commonly called the Hib immunisation and is available to all Australian children through the National Immunisation Program.

If your child is fully immunised, it will stop him from getting epiglottitis and other potentially fatal diseases.