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What are the Most Common Causes of Neonatal Respiratory Distress?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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Neonatal respiratory distress, also referred to as hyaline membrane disease, is a found in newborns and is a condition in which the lungs are not fully developed and the infant has difficulty breathing. This condition is found primarily among infants who have been born prematurely, but other factors might increase the risk of a child being born with neonatal respiratory distress. Cesarean delivery or an especially fast birth would, for instance, make the child more likely to experience respiratory distress. Children with siblings who had the condition as newborns and children who have diabetic mothers are also more likely to be born with the condition. Pneumonia might cause respiratory distress as well.

Mature lungs produce a substance called surfactant. Surfactant lines the lungs, providing protection and helping to keep the air sacs open so that the lungs can properly inflate. When an infant is born before the lungs can fully mature, insufficient levels of surfactant are produced, leading to difficulty in breathing.

Premature birth is the most common cause of neonatal respiratory distress. Usually, the condition is observed in infants born before the 28th week of pregnancy, but newborns up to the 34th week might still experience respiratory distress. Respiratory distress in children who are taken to full term is very uncommon.

Additional factors might make neonatal respiratory distress more likely. Genetic factors play a role. The condition is more common in boys than girls. Diabetes in the mother makes the condition more likely. In multiple births, infants born after the first child are more likely to display symptoms.

A child born with neonatal respiratory distress might display any of four main symptoms, along with a series of supporting indicators. Rapid breathing, drawing in the ribs while inhaling, grunting or snoring noises while exhaling and a blue tongue are the primary symptoms, and any newborn displaying two of these symptoms is likely to suffer from the condition. Of these symptoms, the blue tongue, referred to as central cyanosis, is the most common. Other symptoms that might indicate neonatal respiratory distress include swollen limbs, flaring nostrils, apnea or reduced amounts of urination.

After the condition has been identified, several treatments are available for neonatal respiratory distress. Oxygen might be required and can be administered through a cannula. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine also might be needed to assist with breathing. Artificial surfactant can be administered to aid breathing as well. Other treatments or medications might also be required to treat related conditions or complications.

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