What is chronic lung disease in infants?

Chronic Lung Disease in Infants

Chronic lung disease in infants: Overview

Sometimes, babies who are born early (premature) or with a heart problem or other condition have damaged lungs and have trouble breathing. This is called chronic lung disease, or bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Parts of the lungs can trap air, fill with fluid, and make extra mucus.

You may be scared and worried about your baby having a serious health problem. But most babies who have chronic lung disease survive, and many outgrow most of their lung problems. Your baby is likely to need medicines and extra feedings to help the lungs heal. You can do much of the care that your child needs at home.

Chronic lung disease in infants

Chronic lung disease, or bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), is a condition that causes breathing problems in newborns. It is most common in babies who are premature. It causes symptoms such as wheezing, grunting, and fast breathing. Treatment helps the baby breathe more easily while the lungs mature and heal on their own.

What are the symptoms of chronic lung disease in infants?

A baby with chronic lung disease may have symptoms as soon as 3 days after birth. The most common first symptom is trouble breathing. Your newborn may:

  • Grunt or breathe fast.
  • Flare the nostrils.
  • Use the neck, chest, and belly muscles to breathe. This can look like your baby is "sucking in" air between or under the ribs.
  • Wheeze, or make a high-pitched sound when breathing.
  • Tire easily during and after feeding.
  • Have pale, gray, or blotchy skin, especially on the tongue, lips, earlobes, and nail beds.

How is chronic lung disease treated in infants?

Treatment will help your baby breathe more easily. This reduces the stress on the baby's body while the lungs mature and heal on their own.

Babies with chronic lung disease are usually treated in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which is geared to the needs of premature or ill newborns. Your baby may need one or more of the following treatments, depending on how severe the disease is:

  • Oxygen therapy to help your baby breathe. Oxygen may be given through a tube in the baby's nose or mouth or through a hood over the baby's head. A machine called a ventilator can give oxygen to babies who can't breathe well on their own.
  • Medicines. For example, your baby may be given a diuretic to keep fluid from building up in the lungs or a bronchodilator to stop airway spasms. Your baby may also get medicine to prevent RSV infection.
  • An incubator to help control body temperature and protect the baby from germs.
  • An apnea monitor to detect any problems with your baby's breathing patterns.
  • Nutrition support. Babies with chronic lung disease burn a lot of calories breathing and fighting infections, so they need extra calories and protein to grow at a normal rate. They may not be able to eat from a bottle or at the breast. Instead, a high-calorie mixture may be put directly into the stomach through a tube in the nose. Or the mixture may be given through a tube in a vein (I.V.).

Babies who have chronic lung disease may also have other problems that need treatment, such as:

  • Pneumonia or other lung infections.
  • Narrowed or collapsed airways.
  • Bloodstream infection (sepsis).

Babies who have chronic lung disease may need to stay in the hospital from several weeks to several months.

How is chronic lung disease diagnosed in infants?

There is no single test to diagnose chronic lung disease. A doctor may first suspect it if your baby has trouble breathing. The diagnosis is confirmed if your baby needs extra oxygen for at least 28 days after birth. Based on your baby's gestational age and how much longer your baby needs extra oxygen, your doctor will know how severe the disease is. Gestational age is the number of weeks since the start of pregnancy.

A doctor may order tests to rule out other causes of breathing trouble or to check for other problems caused by chronic lung disease. For example, your baby might have:

  • Blood tests, including a blood gas test, to see how well the lungs are working.
  • Lung function tests to see how much damage has been done to the lungs.
  • Heart tests, such as an echocardiogram, to see how well the heart is working.

How can you care for your infant who has chronic lung disease?

  • If your baby is taking medicine, give it exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with a medicine.
  • Follow your doctor's directions for giving your baby oxygen at home if it is prescribed. Your baby may get oxygen through an opening through the neck into the windpipe or trachea. This is called a tracheostomy.
  • Feed your baby on demand. Babies who have chronic lung disease need extra protein and calories to heal.
    • Most babies get more nutrients if they are fed small amounts frequently.
    • Allow your baby to rest during feeding if needed.
    • Keep track of how much your baby drinks and eats.
    • Weigh your baby (or take your baby to the doctor's office to be weighed) as often as your doctor asks you to. Write down how much your baby weighs each time. This will help show if your baby is getting enough to eat.
  • Try to feed and bathe your baby back-to-back or between naps to allow the baby longer periods of rest. If the baby has trouble breathing, wait to do the care until your baby is breathing more easily.
  • Keep your baby away from cold air, which can make it harder for babies to breathe.
  • Keep your baby away from people who have infections such as a cold or the flu.
  • Wash your hands or use hand gels or wipes that contain alcohol to clean your hands before you hold or feed your baby.
  • Keep your baby away from smoke. Do not smoke around your baby or in your house, and avoid being around others who are smoking.

What is chronic lung disease in infants?

Chronic lung disease in an infant means that damaged tissue in the newborn's lungs is causing breathing and health problems. The lungs trap air or collapse, fill with fluid, and produce extra mucus.

Most babies who have chronic lung disease survive. But symptoms may come back and need treatment into early childhood. In time, many children outgrow most of their lung problems.

Chronic lung disease is also known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD.

What causes chronic lung disease in infants?

Chronic lung disease is caused by problems in a baby's lungs. It is most common in premature babies who are born before 26 weeks of gestational ageand weigh less than 1 kg (2.2 lb) .A premature baby's lungs may not be fully developed. This makes the baby likely to have problems that can lead to chronic lung disease such as:

  • Injury to the lungs from the use of a ventilator. Many premature babies need this treatment, especially if they have respiratory distress syndrome. But a ventilator's forced breathing and high oxygen levels can damage a baby's lungs.
  • Infections. Premature babies are more likely to get lung infections, often from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Other problems that can lead to chronic lung disease include:

  • Inherited problems that affect how the lungs develop.
  • A heart condition called patent ductus arteriosus that affects blood flow to the lungs.
  • Breathing meconium into the lungs during delivery. This causes lung irritation and inflammation that damage lung tissue.
  • Lack of nourishment. Newborns who aren't able to get the proper nutrients, especially vitamin A, are more likely to have chronic lung disease.

Chronic lung disease in infants: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your baby turns blue or becomes unconscious.
  • Your baby has severe trouble breathing. Signs may include the chest sinking in, using belly muscles to breathe, or nostrils flaring while your baby is struggling to breathe.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your baby has signs of an upper respiratory infection, such as:
    • Fussiness.
    • Mild fever.
    • Stuffy nose.
    • Cough.
    • Trouble breathing, or wheezing.
  • Your baby is fussy during feedings or will not eat.
  • Your baby is losing weight or not gaining weight.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your baby has any new symptoms.

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