Acquired tracheomalacia is very uncommon. Rarely, babies, infants, and adults may develop the condition. It occurs when normal cartilage in the wall of the windpipe begins to break down.
Acquired, or secondary, tracheomalacia may result:
From pressure on the airway by large blood vessels
As a complication after surgical repair of a tracheo-esophagela fistula or esophageal atresia
After having a breathing tube or tracheostomy for a long time
Breathing problems that get worse with coughing, crying, or upper respiratory infections
Breathing noises that may change with position and improve during sleep
Rattling, noisy breaths
Exams and Tests
A physical examination confirms the symptoms. A chest x-ray may show narrowing of the trachea when breathing out. Even if the x-ray is normal, it is needed to rule out other problems.
A procedure called a laryngoscopy is used to diagnose the condition. This procedure allows the otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor, or ENT) to see the structure of the airway and determine how severe the problem is.
Adults who develop tracheomalacia after being on a breathing machine often have serious lung problems.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you or your child breathes in an abnormal way. It can become an urgent or emergency condition.
Gaissert HA, Burns J. The compromised airway: tumors, strictures, and tracheomalacia. Surg Clin North Am. 2010; 90(5):1065-1089.
Licameli GR, Richardson MA. Diagnosis and management of tracheal anomalies and tracheal stenosis. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 207.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.