An airway obstruction happens when the breathing passages become blocked or narrowed.

Breathing is one of those instinctive body functions that become so automatic, that we rarely think about it. That is, of course, until something comes along to obstruct the airway and we can no longer breathe easily anymore. An airway obstruction happens when the breathing passages become blocked or narrowed. It can occur anywhere along the upper and lower respiratory tracts, including the nose, mouth, larynx, and bronchi.

What Can Cause Breathing Obstruction?

The respiratory system, or airway, is a complex network of organs and tissues that come together to help you breathe. It includes the upper respiratory tract, which is mainly made up of the mouth, nose, sinuses, and throat. The lower respiratory tract consists of the trachea, bronchi, and lungs. 

Many things can cause the airway to become partially or fully obstructed, including:

Environmental Factors

An allergic reaction to environmental factors, such as dust, pollen, mold, pet dander, insect venom, etc., can cause the airway to become inflamed and obstructed. Allergic reactions happen when you inhale, touch, or consume an allergen. In response, your body starts making and releasing chemicals to defend you against foreign substance, which, in severe cases, can cause the airway to swell and stop you from breathing. When this happens, doctors call it anaphylaxis, and it is considered a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. 

The symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Coughing, chest pain, wheezing, itching, or difficulty getting air in and out of the lungs
  • Weakness, dizziness, or feeling faint
  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Confusion
  • Abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Swollen, itchy face, lips, and/or tongue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Rapid heartbeat or low pulse

Medical Conditions

Several medical conditions can cause the airway to constrict, swell, become obstructed, or blocked:

Asthma: asthma can cause the airways both to swell and constrict, causing the tubes that carry air in and out of the nose to become stiffer and narrower. Additionally, the body can create more mucus during an attack, which can further clog the airway. 

Rhinophyma: rhinophyma is a rare skin disorder that causes the nose to become red, enlarged, and bulbous. Untreated rhinophyma early stages can not only lead to facial disfigurement; the excessive tissue growth can also cause the external structures of the nose to collapse and obstruct the airway, making breathing extremely difficult. 

Deviated septum: the nasal septum refers to the bone and cartilage structure right in the middle of the nose that divides the nasal cavity in half. A septum that’s significantly crooked or displaced to one side can partially block the airway and restrict breathing. 

Infections: viral and bacterial infections, such as the flu, COVID-19, and epiglottitis (a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the flap of cartilage at the back of the throat called epiglottis). Abscesses in the throat or tonsils (tonsillitis) can also partially block the airways. 

Chronic sinusitis: sinusitis is an inflammation of the air-filled cavities inside of the skull called sinuses. The sinuses can become inflamed and infected when they are filled with mucus, and this inflammation can restrict proper airflow. In addition, nasal polyps and abnormal nasal structures (such as a deviated septum) can lead to chronic (long-term) sinusitis. 

Chronic rhinitis: both environmental irritants (allergens, viruses, smoke, etc.) as well as structural problems, such as a deviated septum or enlarged turbinates, can cause the inner lining of the nose to become inflamed. In most cases, non-allergy structural issues can be corrected with nasal surgery to improve nasal function. 

Cystic fibrosis: People who have cystic fibrosis inherit a genetic mutation that increases the thickness of mucus and other fluids in the body. This ticker mucus can block the airways partially or fully and lead to respiratory failure.  

Throat cancer and tumors: cancerous and non-cancerous growths anywhere along the airway (pharynx, larynx, trachea, lungs, etc.) can restrict airflow and impede normal breathing. 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is an umbrella term for a group of long-term lung conditions, including chronic bronchitis. In chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes are constantly inflamed and irritated, producing excess mucus and making it harder for your lungs to move air in and out of the body.  
Periodontitis (gum disease): research suggests that the oral bacteria present in the gums of people with periodontitis can travel to the lungs every time they breathe through their mouths, raising the risk for respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.


Choking: choking with a piece of food or a foreign object is one of the most frequent causes of complete airway obstruction. Breathing obstruction is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children under one year of age. 

Vocal cord issues: vocal cord injuries or dysfunctions make it so the vocal cords are unintentionally closed or narrow when they are supposed to be open, restricting normal breathing. 

Brain and spinal cord injuries: severe brain or spinal cord injuries can impair the proper functioning of essential respiratory muscles, including the diaphragm. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and flattens to allow air in. Then, as you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and expands, returning to its original shape as it helps push air out of the lungs. If for any reason, your diaphragm isn’t working the way it should, the airways can become obstructed. 
Burns: inhaling a large amount of scorching hot air or smoke can injure organs and tissues along the upper respiratory tract, such as the epiglottis and larynx, leading to obstructed airways.


Many breathing problems can be easily fixed with a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, or simple nasal procedures like Rhinoplasty in Denver. If you are struggling with breathing obstruction from chronic sinusitis, rhinitis, septal deviation, rhinophyma, or other congenital or structural issues, Thompson Facial Plastics can help. Dr. Thompson prides himself on using a personalized, comprehensive treatment approach to improve a patient’s nasal airway and breathing abilities. 
To schedule a consultation with the best rhinoplasty surgeon in Denver, Dr. Thompson, please call Thompson Facial Plastics at 303-667-1474 or click here to request an appointment.

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