Upper Airway Obstruction

What is Upper Airway Obstruction?

Upper airway obstruction is a blockage of airflow in the upper airway tract, located in the nose, throat and trachea. It is medically referred to as laryngeal obstruction, laryngospasm or laryngeal stridor. The blockage can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, including infections, tumors, foreign bodies, swelling and anatomical abnormalities.

Signs & Symptoms of Upper Airway Obstruction

  • Snoring, gurgling or squeaking noise when exhaling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • High-pitched sound
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Gasping for air
  • Trouble speaking or swallowing
  • Sore throat/anatomy
  • Coughing
  • Stridor (a rough or harsh sounding noise)
  • Drooling
  • Panic or anxiety
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Exercise intolerance

Causes & Risk Factors of Upper Airway Obstruction

The most common cause of upper airway obstruction is due to swelling of the larynx (also called laryngitis), which is usually caused by an infection or allergies. Other causes include the following:
  • Anatomical abnormalities such as vascular rings, webs or cysts
  • Ingestion of foreign bodies
  • Tumors
  • Neck injury
  • Allergies
  • Spasm of the laryngeal muscles
  • Congenital conditions such as tracheomalacia and vocal cord paralysis
Other risk factors include a family history of upper airway obstruction, having asthma, intolerance to certain medications, exposure to certain environmental toxins, smoking and poor sleeping habits.

Diagnosis & Treatment of Upper Airway Obstruction

Diagnosis of upper airway obstruction is made with a physical exam, review of medical history and imaging studies such as x-rays and CT scans. The treatment of upper airway obstruction depends on the underlying cause. Treatments may include medications to reduce swelling or allergies, laryngeal surgery, removal of foreign bodies, or allergy shots. In some cases, an EndoTracheal tube may be recommended to help with airway obstruction and breathing difficulties. In certain cases, emergency management may be necessary when the patient is having difficulty breathing due to upper airway obstruction. This may include intubation, oxygen therapy, suctioning to remove objects or fluids from the airway, or the administration of medications.