Acute airway distress is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment to limit morbidity and mortality. Airway distress arises from any process in the larynx, trachea, or bronchi that obstructs pulmonary ventilation. A wide variety of pathologic processes can result in airway distress. Management of patients experiencing acute airway distress depends greatly on the severity of distress as well as the specific etiology, but restoring adequate ventilation to the pulmonary system is the goal of all treatments. Oxygen administration, intubation, cricothyrotomy, and tracheotomy are all treatment options for patients in acute airway distress.
Since the treatment of acute airway distress can depend greatly on the etiology of the problem, it is important to know the clinical presentation of different causes of airway distress. Interpreting both patients' presenting signs and symptoms in conjunction with physical examination, laryngoscopy when appropriate, and ancillary testing is essential to determine the etiology of obstruction and proper management. Causes of acute airway obstruction include infections, immunologic reactions, trauma, and foreign body obstruction.