Epiglottitis is 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 caused by bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae type B.
Epiglottitis happens mainly in toddlers and preschoolers, but it can happen at any age.
Epiglottitis is much less common these days because of widespread immunisation against Haemophilus influenzae type B.
Epiglottitis can start very quickly in children who have been perfectly well. Within a few hours a child can be dangerously sick.
A child with epiglottitis might:
- look pale and unwell
- have saliva drooling from their open mouth
- have a sore throat
- have trouble swallowing
- have difficulty breathing or breathe with a soft, snoring noise
- sit well forward and refuse to lie down because it’s even harder for them to breathe in that position
- be irritable and restless
- feel hot with a fever.
You might find it very hard to help the child feel better.
Epiglottitis is a medical emergency. If you suspect your child has it, call 000 for an ambulance or go to a hospital emergency department immediately.
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.
Try to keep your child calm while you’re waiting for medical help. When children cry they breathe harder, and this can make any airway blockages worse.
In hospital, your child will be admitted to intensive care. Your child will probably have a breathing tube inserted into their nose to help them breathe. And your child will get antibiotics directly into a vein through a drip.
Children who are treated quickly and have no complications usually make a full recovery.
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 children are fully immunised, it stops them from getting epiglottitis and other potentially fatal diseases.