Airway Disorders

Airway disorders can affect how babies and children breathe, eat, swallow, and sleep. They may be diagnosed before birth or develop over time as the result of an infection or traumatic injury. Duke pediatric otolaryngologists work closely with experts in many pediatric specialties to diagnose and treat your child’s condition. We work with you and your child to help them eat, sleep, swallow, and breathe as normally as possible.

Understanding Airway Disorders

There are many different conditions that can affect your child’s ability to function normally.

  • Children may be born with throat, trachea, or nasal passages that are too narrow to let air and food flow comfortably or allow swallowing to happen naturally. These may include:
    • Subglottic stenosis
    • Pyriform aperture stenosis
    • Choanal atresia and stenosis 
    • Complete tracheal rings
  • Obstructions in the airways between the nose, throat, and lungs that are present at birth can also have a significant impact, including causing sleep apnea. Examples include:
    • Cysts
    • Floppy tissue around the vocal cords (laryngomalacia)
    • Laryngeal cleft, a rare condition in which the there is a deep groove or opening on the back wall of the voice box that allows food and drinks to pass into the airway (aspiration)
    • Collapsed or weakened windpipe (tracheomalacia or bronchomalacia), which can cause a child to choke while eating and also cause difficulty with breathing normally
  • Children can also develop airway disorders as a result of other medical conditions, such as:
    • Cystic fibrosis, which causes mucus to build up in the lungs
    • Vocal cord lesions or paralysis, which may develop following an injury, stroke, tumor, or infections. These can damage the nerve that controls the vocal cords and cause problems with your child's voice. They can also cause problems with swallowing and eating, and allow food and liquids to pass into the windpipe.
  • Blocked airways can also occur suddenly. If your child experiences a sudden blockage in their airway from an object or allergic reaction, call 911 immediately.

Because these conditions require care from many specialists, your child’s team may include head and neck surgeons, pulmonologists, neurologists, allergists, gastroenterologists, speech pathologists, nutritionists, and social workers who are specially trained to work with children. We coordinate your child’s care and work with your child to help them overcome the challenges they face.


Children with airway disorders require highly personalized care. Treatments may range from simple, ongoing monitoring to complex surgery.

Tests and Procedures

Diagnosing and ongoing care of children with airway disorders requires many types of imaging. Our pediatric otolaryngologists may request the following tests or procedures.

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