Adult airway stenosis: Treat your clogged airway and breathe easier

If you are short of breath, perhaps you’ve been told you have asthma. You might also hear a high-pitched sound when you breathe. You may have a condition called adult airway stenosis. UW Health airway experts can diagnose and treat your condition, bringing you almost instant relief.


We can help you determine whether it's asthma or airway stenosis

If you have trouble breathing — and emit a high-pitched noise with each breath — you might have a condition called adult airway stenosis, or narrowing of the airway. This condition is sometimes misdiagnosed as asthma, however airway stenosis is different.

Because it gets worse over time, airway stenosis can be a life-threatening condition if left untreated. Fortunately, this condition can be treated and improve your breathing almost instantly.

A team that's ready to help

UW Health has one of the most experienced clinical teams specializing in airway stenosis. Treating this condition typically requires experts from several different fields. Only a handful of institutions around the country, including UW Health, offer comprehensive, collaborative airway treatment expertise with doctors who specialize in:

  • Ear, nose and throat (otolaryngology – head and neck surgery)

  • Interventional pulmonology

  • Anesthesia

  • Thoracic surgery

  • Rheumatology

  • Speech pathology

In many instances, treatment is available on an outpatient basis. Whether your visit is outpatient or inpatient, you are likely to notice immediate improvement in your quality of life. We look forward to meeting you and helping you breathe easier.


How airway stenosis happens

“Stenosis” means narrowing, so airway stenosis means narrowing of the airway. It is a serious problem that gets progressively worse the longer it goes untreated.

Because the condition is hard to diagnose and often mistaken for asthma, patients, through no fault of their own, often wait months or even years before getting to the right place for treatment. Some providers simply may not know there are centers that specialize in treating complex airway disorders such as stenosis.

Stenosis can occur in the larynx (voice box) or the trachea (windpipe). While there are instances when the cause is unknown, most cases of airway stenosis are the result of:

  • Scar tissue that forms inside the airway. This can occur in patients after they have a breathing tube taken out, especially if the breathing tube was placed for several days.

  • Trauma, such as a karate chop to the neck or a hockey puck that strikes the throat area

  • A tumor that is pressing on the airway

  • Autoimmune disorders


Possible signs of airway stenosis

Aside from shortness of breath, the most common symptom with airway stenosis is a high-pitched noise (called stridor, which rhymes with “rider”) that occurs with each breath.

The noise usually occurs while breathing in, although it also can occur while breathing out. Stridor sounds like wheezing, which is one reason why airway stenosis is often misdiagnosed as asthma. Other symptoms of airway stenosis include:

  • Increased breathing difficulty after exertion, such as climbing stairs

  • Persistent cough

  • Frequent colds, bouts of pneumonia or other respiratory infections

  • Chest congestion

Diagnosis and treatment

Quick, comprehensive diagnosis

The best news about airway stenosis is that you’ll receive a detailed evaluation of your situation and treatment plan by the end of your first visit. To diagnose your situation, we perform a brief procedure in the office, called transnasal tracheoscopy (TNT), that allows the doctor to closely examine your airway. A numbing substance is used to minimize discomfort and most patients tolerate the procedure well.

Treatment that leads to easier breathing

Many stenosis patients can be treated endoscopically (through the mouth) on an outpatient basis or, on occasion, a one-night stay for observation. Typically, the patient is brought to the operating room, where the procedure is performed under general anesthesia by an ear, nose and throat (otolaryngology) head and neck surgeon. Using special lighting and visualization tools, the surgeon carefully assesses the area. Depending on the type of stenosis, a laser is used to cut away obstructing tissue or a balloon is inserted to stretch the tissue, restoring more normal airflow and breathing capacity.

A small number of patients have a different type of stenosis, in which the outer wall of the airway shrinks inward and cannot be improved using endoscopic methods. These patients are treated on an inpatient basis. Once the patient is under general anesthesia, the surgeon makes an incision in the neck, removes the deformed area of airway and then sews the two good pieces of airway back together. This procedure typically requires the patient to remain in the hospital for 5 to 7 days before going home.

Meet our team

Top-notch providers for airway stenosis


Expert care in Madison