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Epiglottitis

epiglottitis; throat; Hib; child; sore; infectious; cough ;

Epiglottitis is a rare but very serious disease that can cause children to die because their airway in the throat becomes blocked. It is much less common since children have been immunised against Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B).

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Alert!

If a child has symptoms of epiglottitis (noisy breathing at rest, fever, dribbling, cannot swallow and is obviously ill) this is a medical emergency, and the child needs urgent treatment in a major hospital. Call an ambulance or take the child straight to hospital.

Any child who suddenly starts to cough or has noisy breathing during the day time without being unwell before, may be choking on something and should be seen by a doctor urgently. See the topic Choking on food and other objects for more information.

What is epiglottitis?

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  • Epiglottitis is an uncommon, serious, infection of the epiglottis almost always caused by the germ Haemophilis influenza type B (Hib).
  • The epiglottis is a flap which is in the airway at the back of the tongue, and when it is infected it becomes swollen and red, and can block the airway.
  • A child can go quickly from being well to having serious airway blockage within 4 to 6 hours.
  • The child appears ill, with a high fever, does not want to do anything, has a very sore throat and noisy breathing, even when the child is resting and not crying.
  • There is usually no cough.
  • The child usually wants to sit up and lean forward with mouth open and tongue sticking out (this is the safest position for the child).

Treatment

  • Epiglottitis is an emergency that has to be treated in a major hospital where a tube will usually be put into the airway to help with breathing.
  • The child is also treated with antibiotics and most recover fully within a couple of days.
  • While waiting for medical treatment it is important to keep the child as calm as possible, and sitting up, as becoming upset or lying down can lead to more breathing difficulities.

Protecting children from epiglottitis

  • Immunisation against Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) will prevent epiglottitis caused by Hib provided the child has had all the immunisations.
  • Doctors have to tell the health department if they see someone with epiglottitis so steps can be taken to prevent it spreading.
  • Children under 4 years who are close contacts of a child with epiglottitis, or another Hib infection, may need treatment with an antibiotic to prevent them also catching the disease.

References

Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th edition, 2013.  

Department of Health (South Australia), Communicable Diseases Control Branch 
'Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib)'

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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