A collapsed trachea occurs when the cartilage in your throat becomes softer and begins to fall inward. You may be born with it, or it may develop because of a condition, treatment, or injury. A collapsed trachea may be a medical emergency.
Prolonged intubation, damage from surgery, chronic infection, GERD, or inhaling irritants can cause a collapsed trachea.
If you are experiencing shortness of breath or having trouble breathing, seek medical care immediately.
In this article, we review the signs and symptoms, causes, and treatments of a collapsed trachea.
Mild cases of a collapsed trachea, or tracheomalacia, may have no symptoms at all, but symptoms can develop over time. These include:
- irregular breathing noises, such as high pitched or rattling sounds
- chronic cough
- difficulty swallowing
- recurring respiratory tract infections
- shortness of breath
- episodes of feeling like you are choking
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk with a healthcare professional right away.
If a person with a collapsed trachea has breathing difficulties or noisy breathing, call a doctor immediately. A collapsed trachea can limit breathing and may become a medical emergency.
There are a few things that can lead to a collapsed trachea.
Some infants are born with weak or floppy tracheal cartilage that can lead to collapse.
Meanwhile, adults may develop it from trauma caused by medical procedures, chronic infections, or inhaling irritants.
Surgery or other medical procedures
If surgery was the cause of your collapsed trachea, your doctor will likely recommend some sort of procedure that will strengthen the trachea and restore its structure. They may prescribe medications to relieve symptoms.
If intubation and mechanical ventilation caused injury to your trachea, your doctor may prescribe steroids and other medications. If symptoms persist, you may require surgery.
Repeat infections can lead to significant inflammation, which can injure your lungs and trachea, making them weaker.
Your doctor may treat the infection by prescribing antibiotics. Antibiotics can reduce inflammation and tracheal damage.
People with a tracheal injury from an infection may benefit from treatments to help open the airway. These include:
- bronchodilators or inhalers
- continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a therapy that applies mild pressure to keep the airways open
- chest therapy to break up any mucus in the lungs
Emphysema or other chronic and progressive lung diseases
Emphysema is a condition where the air sacs in the lungs are destroyed by certain irritants, making it difficult to breathe. This condition is usually related to long-term smoking. It can weaken the trachea while weakening your ability to exhale and breathe.
Your doctor may prescribe certain medications to manage your condition and help improve symptoms. These medications include:
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD is a condition in which stomach acid and stomach contents rise up your esophagus, causing regurgitation. Tracheal injury occurs when stomach acid enters your trachea during this process. It can lead to weakness or stenosis (tightening of the trachea).
Treatment includes managing GERD to prevent further injury. Certain medications can reduce stomach acid production. You may need medications to assist the airway as well. In severe cases, surgery may be needed.
Inhaling irritants can cause injury and inflammation of the trachea.
Treatment depends on the type and amount of inhaled substance. It is important to talk with a doctor to help determine what inhalant caused the issue. Knowing which substance helps determine how best to treat it.
Steroids can broadly manage symptoms. In severe cases, surgery may be needed.
Inflammation of cartilage in the trachea (polychondritis)
Polychondritis is an autoimmune condition where cartilage throughout the body is inflamed. This inflammation can injure the tracheal cartilage, leading to collapse.
Your doctor may prescribe steroids or other anti-inflammatory medications.
To make a diagnosis, your doctor will likely begin with a physical exam. They will review your symptoms and medical history. Your doctor may then order some tests, such as:
The long-term outlook for people with a collapsed trachea varies greatly. It depends on the cause of the collapsed trachea.
However, symptoms can be very well managed. Many people recover fully.
Can you still eat with a collapsed trachea?
In most cases, yes, you can still eat with a collapsed trachea. However, you may have trouble swallowing.
Can you talk with a collapsed trachea?
Yes, you can usually speak if you have a collapsed trachea unless the condition worsens and you cannot breathe.
Can your trachea collapse a second time?
If you experience symptoms a second time, it is likely a worsening of the tracheal injury that caused your symptoms in the first place. Once you have a tracheal injury, you are more prone to further injury and symptoms.
A collapsed trachea occurs when the cartilage around your windpipe becomes weak and floppy, leading to difficulty breathing.
Some infants are born with a collapsed trachea. Adults can develop it from medical procedures (such as intubation), inflammation of the trachea from GERD, chronic infections, or inhaling irritants.
Treatment varies for each case but typically includes inhalers, steroids, surgery, and other interventions.
If you feel short of breath or are worried you may be experiencing a collapsed trachea, contact a doctor immediately.