Our airway is one of the most critical parts of our body, as it allows us to breathe in oxygen. When our airway is working correctly, we thrive. When our airway is blocked or obstructed, however, it can wreak havoc on our overall health. An understanding of how the airway works, as well as how the airway develops from infancy through adulthood, gives us insight into common airway issues, such as sleep apnea and sleep-disordered breathing. Here, we’ll explain the proper function of an airway, common problems, and how we can benefit from keeping our airway unobstructed and healthy.
What is the Airway?
Although the respiratory tract runs from the top of our nasal septum down to the lowest alveoli in our lungs, when we talk about the airway, we’re usually referring to the upper airway. The upper airway is in charge of bringing air and oxygen into our lungs.
When nasal breathing, the air enters through the nose where the mucosa filters, warms, and moistens the air as it passes through. The air then travels down and into the lungs. When mouth breathing, the mouth enters through the mouth and also travels down and into the lungs.
There are various reasons our airway may become obstructed, such as:
- Deviated nasal septums
- Prolonged pacifier or bottle use
- Enlarged tonsils
- Sinus polyps
- Birth abnormalities
- Mouth breathing and improper rest posture
Airway obstructions can start at birth, or can develop over time.
Child Airway vs. Adult Airway
There are many critical differences between a child’s airway and an adult’s airway. A child’s airway is shorter and smaller in diameter, which means that swelling and certain airway problems can more easily interfere with a child’s breathing more often than with an adult’s.
Pediatric Restricted Airway
Adult Restricted Airway
Children have tongues that are proportionally larger in their mouth than an adult’s would be, as the tongue will grow at a slower pace than the rest of the mouth. Children may also have larger tonsils or adenoids, which is a common cause of sleep apnea. Their epiglottis is shaped differently, their trachea is softer, and there are several other differences that they will grow out of with age.
Children’s airway disorders and breathing issues can be difficult to catch if you are not looking for the right signs! Children’s airways should be observed more frequently and assessed as soon as possible if an airway obstruction is suspected.
Common Airway Problems
Airway problems can interfere with the quality of your life, and lead to issues such as:
- Dry mouth
- Worsening symptoms of asthma and allergies
- Bad breath
- Increased risk for ear infections, throat infections, and dental issues
- Improper jaw development
- Forward head posture
- Narrow dental arches
- Out-of-position jaw or TMJ issues
- Sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing
- Teeth clenching and grinding
When an airway disorder is detected, we can take steps to get the airway back to its full function and eliminate the health issues that come from it.
Benefits of a Healthy Airway
When the airway is functioning as it ought, we can sleep better and live a healthier life overall. Do you think you or your child may have an airway problem? Schedule a consultation or virtual appointment with Dr. Liz Turner at the Bloom Center for Sleep & Airway Health. She will assess your unique situation.
Want to learn more about sleep and airway health? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders.