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What is Tracheomalacia?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Tracheomalacia is a condition characterized by weakness of the trachea, the cartilage-reinforced tube which forms part of the airway. In people with tracheomalacia, the trachea is at risk of collapse when they breathe out and patients can experience breathing difficulties. This condition is relatively rare and there are several treatment options available, depending in part on the type and cause of the tracheomalacia.

The trachea is designed to expand and contract as someone breathes. When it is weakened, the cartilage is not as strong and thee tube may not be as flexible, which can make it hard to breathe. Patients with tracheomalacia often have noisy breathing, especially while crying. They can experience difficulty breathing and may be at risk for aspiration pneumonia, in which the lungs become infected as a result of inhaling food. Some patients experience total airway collapse when they breathe out and the trachea contracts but cannot hold itself open as it would normally.

One form of this condition is congenital tracheomalacia, in which infants are born with underdeveloped cartilage in their tracheas. Treatment for this form often relies on supporting the patient during early childhood development so that the cartilage has a chance to grow. Some infants require surgery to correct the problem. It is also important to be aware that tracheomalacia can accompany other development abnormalities and infants with this condition should be screened closely for signs of other problems.

Acquired tracheomalacia occurs after birth. It can be the result of abnormal blood vessels which put pressure on the trachea and cause it to break down, as well as infections of the trachea. Prolonged use of a ventilator can also contribute to the development of tracheomalacia, as can certain surgeries, which may cause cartilage breakdowns as a complication. Since this condition is a known risk of certain standards of care and medical procedures, patients at risk may be monitored and screened for any signs of tracheomalacia.

In patients with the acquired form of this condition, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine can be used to help the patient breathe more comfortably and to avoid periods of apnea. Some patients require a stent to hold the trachea open and in some cases a surgery may be necessary to repair the trachea. These options can be explored by a physician with the assistance of diagnostic tests and medical imaging studies to learn more about the condition of the trachea so that an appropriate treatment plan can be developed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Tomislav — On Jul 21, 2011

@sinbad- I am pretty sure dyspnea is labored breathing, as opposed to actually being the name of a disorder. In fact I think I remember reading something about dyspnea being one of the main symptoms of that COPD thing my in-law has.

But if your friend is having snoring issues and is tired many times even though she feels she is sleeping then I would find some way to request to her to get a sleep study.

By Sinbad — On Jul 21, 2011

@Tomislav - I agree, with so many disorders affecting the airway, it seems it would be difficult. I am not an expert but I do know that stridor is associated with both tracheomalacia in adults and tracheomalacia in infants.

Stridor is a type of noisy breathing, and it has to be a symptom of many illnesses I would think!

Is the sleep apnea you were discussing the same as dyspnea? I have a friend who just stayed overnight in a hotel with me and my goodness did she snore! So I am wondering if she might have some difficulty with sleep apnea...

By Tomislav — On Jul 20, 2011

I thought it was interesting that those with this disorder also have to use a CPAP machine, I know people who need this machine because they found that they are not sleeping well (usually diagnosed by a sleep study).

In fact I know 3 people on this machine, my dad (serious snorer), my in-law (she has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: COPD), and another friend who has a narrow trachea.

So I wonder if it is hard to decipher the difference between tracheomalacia symptoms and the symptoms of these other disorders...

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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