Merck Manual

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Rebecca Dezube

, MD, MHS, Johns Hopkins University

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
Topic Resources

Stridor is a high-pitched, predominantly inspiratory sound. It is most commonly associated with acute disorders, such as foreign body aspiration Esophageal Foreign Bodies Food and a variety of other swallowed objects can become impacted in the esophagus. Esophageal foreign bodies cause dysphagia and sometimes lead to perforation. Diagnosis is clinical, but imaging... read more Esophageal Foreign Bodies , but can be due to more chronic disorders, such as tracheomalacia.

Pathophysiology of Stridor

Stridor is produced by the rapid, turbulent flow of air through a narrowed or partially obstructed segment of the extrathoracic upper airway. Involved areas include the pharynx, epiglottis, larynx, and the extrathoracic trachea.

Etiology of Stridor

Most causes manifest acutely, but some patients present with chronic or recurrent symptoms (see table ).

Acute causes are usually infectious except for foreign body and allergy.

Chronic causes are usually congenital or acquired structural abnormalities of the upper airway.



Common causes in adults include


Etiology reference

  • 1. Shah RK, Stocks C. Epiglottitis in the United States: national trends, variances, prognosis, and management. Laryngoscope 2010;120(6):1256-1262. doi:10.1002/lary.20921

Evaluation of Stridor


History of present illness should first identify whether symptoms are acute or chronic and whether they are transient or intermittent. If acute, any symptoms of upper respiratory infection (runny nose, fever, sore throat) or allergy (itching, sneezing, facial swelling, rash, potential allergen exposure) are noted. Recent intubation or neck surgery should be clinically obvious. If chronic, the age at onset (eg, since birth, since infancy, only in adulthood) and duration are determined, as well as whether symptoms are continuous or intermittent. For intermittent symptoms, provoking or exacerbating factors (eg, position, allergen exposure, cold, anxiety, feeding, crying) are sought. Important associated symptoms in all cases include cough, pain, drooling, respiratory distress, cyanosis, and difficulty feeding.

Review of systems should seek symptoms suggesting causative disorders, including heartburn or other reflux symptoms (laryngospasm); night sweats, weight loss, and fatigue (cancer); and voice change, trouble swallowing, and recurrent aspiration (neurologic disorders).

Past medical history in children should cover perinatal history, particularly regarding need for endotracheal intubation, presence of known congenital anomalies, and vaccination history (particularly HiB). In adults, history of prior endotracheal intubation, tracheotomy, recurrent respiratory infections, and tobacco and alcohol use should be elicited.

Physical examination

The first step is to determine the presence and degree of respiratory distress by evaluating vital signs (including pulse oximetry) and doing a quick examination. Signs of severe distress include cyanosis, decreased level of consciousness, low oxygen saturation (eg, < 90%), air hunger, use of accessory inspiratory muscles, and difficulty speaking. Children with epiglottitis may sit upright with arms braced on the legs or examination table, lean forward, and hyperextend the neck with the jaw thrust forward and mouth open in an effort to enhance air exchange (tripod position). Moderate distress is indicated by tachypnea, use of accessory muscles of respiration, and intercostal retractions. If distress is severe, further examination is deferred until equipment and personnel are arranged for emergency management of the airway.

Oropharyngeal examination of a patient (particularly a child) with epiglottitis may provoke anxiety, leading to functional obstruction and loss of the airway. Thus, if epiglottitis is suspected, a tongue depressor or other instrument should not be placed in the mouth. When suspicion is low and patients are in no distress, they may undergo imaging; others should be sent to the operating room for direct laryngoscopy, which should be done by an otolaryngologist with the patient under anesthesia.

If the patient’s vital signs and airway are stable and acute epiglottitis is not suspected, the oral cavity should be thoroughly examined for pooled secretions, hypertrophic tonsils, induration, erythema, or foreign bodies. The neck is palpated for masses and tracheal deviation. Careful auscultation of the nose, oropharynx, neck, and chest may help discern the location of the stridor. Infants should be examined with special attention to craniofacial morphology (looking for signs of congenital malformations), patency of the nares, and cutaneous abnormalities.

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Drooling and agitation

  • Tripod position

  • Cyanosis or hypoxemia on pulse oximetry

  • Decreased level of consciousness

Interpretation of findings

The distinction between acute and chronic stridor is important. Other clinical findings are also often helpful (see table ).

Acute manifestations are more likely to reflect an immediately life-threatening disorder. With these disorders, fever suggests infection. Fever plus barking cough suggests croup or, very rarely, tracheitis. Patients with croup typically have more prominent symptoms of upper respiratory infection and less of a toxic appearance. Fever without cough, particularly if accompanied by toxic appearance, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or respiratory distress, and without evidence of pharyngitis, suggests epiglottitis Epiglottitis Epiglottitis is a rapidly progressive bacterial infection of the epiglottis and surrounding tissues that may lead to sudden respiratory obstruction and death. Symptoms include severe sore throat... read more Epiglottitis and, in young children, the less common retropharyngeal abscess Retropharyngeal Abscess Retropharyngeal abscesses, most common among young children, can cause sore throat, fever, neck stiffness, and stridor. Diagnosis requires lateral neck x-ray or CT. Treatment is with endotracheal... read more Retropharyngeal Abscess . Drooling and the tripod position are suggestive of epiglottitis, whereas retropharyngeal abscess may manifest with neck stiffness and inability to extend the neck.

Patients without fever or symptoms of upper respiratory infection may have an acute allergic reaction or aspirated foreign body. Acute allergic reaction severe enough to cause stridor usually has other manifestations of airway edema (eg, oral or facial edema, wheezing) or anaphylaxis (itching, urticaria). Foreign body obstruction of the upper airway that causes stridor is always acute but may be occult in toddlers (older children and adults can communicate the event unless there is near-complete airway obstruction, which will manifest as such, not as stridor). Cough is often present with foreign body but rare with allergic reaction.

Chronic stridor that begins early in childhood and without a clear inciting factor suggests a congenital anomaly or an upper airway tumor. In adults, heavy smoking and alcohol use should raise suspicion of laryngeal cancer. Vocal cord paralysis usually has a clear precipitant, such as surgery or intubation, or is associated with other neurologic findings, such as muscle weakness. Patients with tracheomalacia frequently have cough productive of sputum and have a history of recurrent respiratory infections.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Lateral neck x-rays often falsely suggest an enlarged epiglottis or retropharyngeal space because the x-ray is taken during expiration or is not a precise lateral view.


Testing should include pulse oximetry. In patients with minimal respiratory distress, soft-tissue neck x-rays may help. An enlarged epiglottis or retropharyngeal space can be seen on the lateral view, and the subepiglottic narrowing of croup (steeple sign) may be seen on the anteroposterior view. However, accurate assessment of the epiglottis or retropharyngeal space requires a precisely lateral x-ray taken during inspiration; false-positive results are common due to expiration or slight rotation. X-rays may also identify foreign objects in the neck or chest.

In other cases, direct laryngoscopy can detect vocal cord abnormalities, structural abnormalities, and tumors. CT of the neck and chest should be done if there is concern about a structural abnormality, such as an upper airway tumor or tracheomalacia. Flow-volume loops can be useful in chronic and intermittent stridor to show the presence of an upper airway obstruction. Abnormal flow-volume loop findings generally require follow-up with CT or laryngoscopy.

Treatment of Stridor

Definitive treatment of stridor involves treating the underlying disorder.

As a temporizing measure in patients with severe distress, a mixture of helium and oxygen (heliox) improves airflow and reduces stridor in disorders of the large airways, such as postextubation laryngeal edema, croup, and laryngeal tumors. The mechanism of action is thought to be reduced flow turbulence as a result of lower density of helium compared with oxygen and nitrogen.

Nebulized racemic epinephrine (0.5 to 0.75 mL of 2.25% racemic epinephrine added to 2.5 to 3 mL of normal saline) and dexamethasone (10 mg IV, then 4 mg IV every 6 hours) may be helpful in patients in whom airway edema is the cause.

Endotracheal intubation Tracheal Intubation Most patients requiring an artificial airway can be managed with tracheal intubation, which can be Orotracheal (tube inserted through the mouth) Nasotracheal (tube inserted through the nose)... read more should be used to secure the airway in patients with advanced respiratory distress, impending loss of airway, or decreased level of consciousness; if possible, this should be done in the operating room. When significant edema is present, endotracheal intubation can be difficult, and emergency surgical airway measures (eg, cricothyrotomy, tracheostomy) may be required.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • In patients with advanced respiratory distress and stridor (including in children with suspected epiglottitis), perform endotracheal intubation in the operating room whenever possible.

Key Points

  • Inspiratory stridor is often a medical emergency.

  • Assessment of vital signs and degree of respiratory distress is the first step.

  • In some cases, securing the airway may be necessary before or in parallel with the physical examination.

  • Acute epiglottitis is uncommon in children who have received Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) vaccine.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Adrenaclick, Adrenalin, Auvi-Q, Epifrin, EpiPen, Epipen Jr , Primatene Mist, SYMJEPI, Twinject
AK-Dex, Baycadron, Dalalone, Dalalone D.P, Dalalone L.A, Decadron, Decadron-LA, Dexabliss, Dexacort PH Turbinaire, Dexacort Respihaler, DexPak Jr TaperPak, DexPak TaperPak, Dextenza, DEXYCU, DoubleDex, Dxevo, Hemady, HiDex, Maxidex, Ocu-Dex , Ozurdex, ReadySharp Dexamethasone, Simplist Dexamethasone, Solurex, TaperDex, ZCORT, Zema-Pak, ZoDex, ZonaCort 11 Day, ZonaCort 7 Day
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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