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Tracheomalacia - acquired

Secondary tracheomalacia


Acquired tracheomalacia is a weakness and floppiness of the walls of the windpipe (trachea, or airway). It develops after birth.

See also: Congenital tracheomalacia



Acquired tracheomalacia is very uncommon at any age. It occurs when normal cartilage in the wall of the windpipe begins to break down.

This form of tracheomalacia may result:

  • When large blood vessels put pressure on the airway
  • As a complication after surgery to repair birth defects in the windpipe and esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach)
  • After having a breathing tube or trachea tube (tracheostomy) for a long time




Symptoms of tracheomalacia include:

  • Breathing problems that get worse with coughing, crying, or upper respiratory infections, such as a cold
  • Breathing noises that may change when body position changes, and improve during sleep
  • High-pitched breathing
  • 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.

Other tests may include:

  • Airway fluoroscopy
  • Barium swallow
  • Bronchoscopy
  • CT scan
  • Lung function tests
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)




The condition may improve without treatment, but people with tracheomalacia must be monitored closely when they have respiratory infections.

Adults with breathing problems may need continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Rarely, surgery is needed. A hollow tube called a stent may be placed to hold the airway open.


Possible Complications


Aspiration pneumonia (a lung infection) can occur from breathing in food.

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. Tracheomalacia 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):1065-89.

Kugler C, Stanzel F. Tracheomalacia. Thoracic Surg Clin . 2014;24(1):51-8.

Nelson M, Green G, Ohye RG. Pediatric tracheal anomalies. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund LJ, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery . 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2015:chap 206.


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            Review Date: 4/21/2015

            Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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