Tracheomalacia is a condition that primarily affects newborns. It happens when the cartilage in their windpipe hasn’t developed properly. Tracheomalacia symptoms include frequent cough, noisy breathing and prolonged respiratory infections. Severe cases may require surgery. Though rare, adults can get acquired tracheomalacia.
Tracheomalacia is a condition that happens when the cartilage in your trachea (windpipe) is weak or floppy. As a result, the walls of your windpipe collapse or fall in, leading to a range of breathing issues.
There are two kinds of tracheomalacia:
Congenital tracheomalacia is somewhat rare. Even so, it’s the most common congenital (birth) defect affecting the windpipe. Approximately 1 in 2,100 children are born with the condition.
Acquired tracheomalacia (which can occur at any age) is also very uncommon.
Common tracheomalacia symptoms include:
More severe tracheomalacia symptoms may include:
Congenital tracheomalacia happens when the cartilage in your baby’s windpipe doesn’t develop properly. The walls of your child’s windpipe are floppy instead of rigid.
Acquired tracheomalacia occurs most often in adults, though it can occur at any age. Acquired tracheomalacia may occur as a result of:
A healthcare provider will perform a physical examination and ask about symptoms. If they suspect tracheomalacia, they may perform a laryngoscopy in a clinic, but a bronchoscopy under general anesthesia may be necessary to confirm this diagnosis. During this procedure, your provider will use a thin, flexible or rigid tube with a light and camera to look at your or your child’s windpipe.
Other diagnostic tests may include:
It depends on the type of tracheomalacia and the severity of the condition:
In many cases, infants born with tracheomalacia improve over time — usually by 24 months of age. To manage your baby’s tracheomalacia, your healthcare provider may recommend:
If your baby has severe tracheomalacia, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. But surgery is rarely necessary.
Adults with tracheomalacia can often manage symptoms with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Ask your healthcare provider if this type of therapy is right for you.
Most of the time, surgery isn’t necessary. But if you have severe tracheomalacia, a surgeon can place a stent (a hollow tube) to keep your airway open.
People are either born with tracheomalacia or they acquire it following certain medical procedures, infections or injuries. As a result, there’s nothing you can do to reduce your risk for this condition. But you can successfully manage tracheomalacia with the help of your healthcare provider.
Tracheomalacia is very treatable. Most people go on to live healthy lives with no complications.
Treatment isn’t always necessary. Congenital tracheomalacia usually improves on its own within the first 24 months of life. In some cases, your baby may need additional treatments and/or surgery.
People with tracheomalacia (congenital and acquired) will need close monitoring if they develop upper respiratory infections. Even minor colds can cause serious issues for people with tracheomalacia. Your healthcare provider may recommend treatments or medications to manage your symptoms.
Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider if your baby shows symptoms of tracheomalacia, such as noisy breathing, frequent coughing, choking during feeding or blue spells (cyanosis).
If you think you or a loved one could have acquired tracheomalacia, schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider right away. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance and prolonged respiratory infections. Your provider can confirm the diagnosis and recommend the appropriate treatment.
If a healthcare provider diagnoses you or your baby with tracheomalacia, here are some questions you may want to ask:
Babies born with tracheomalacia often improve over the first 24 months of life. But babies with severe tracheomalacia, or people who acquired the condition later in life, may need treatment.
Tracheomalacia ranges in severity, from mild to life-threatening. The condition is curable with treatment. People with severe tracheomalacia will likely need surgery.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Tracheomalacia is an uncommon condition that causes your windpipe to fall in on itself. Ranging from mild to severe, tracheomalacia can lead to a number of issues, including noisy breathing, frequent coughing and choking during feeding (infants). In severe cases, tracheomalacia may be life-threatening, but it’s curable with treatment. If you or your child develop tracheomalacia symptoms, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can determine the severity of your condition and help find a treatment option that works for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/06/2022.
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