Intercostal Retractions



What are intercostal retractions?

Your intercostal muscles attach to your ribs. When you breathe in air, they normally contract and move your ribs up. At the same time, your diaphragm, which is a thin muscle that separates your chest and abdomen, drops lower and your lungs fill with air. When you have a partial blockage in your upper airway or the small airways in your lungs, air can’t flow freely and the pressure in this part of your body decreases. As a result, your intercostal muscles pull sharply inward. These movements are known as intercostal retractions, also called intercostal recession. Intercostal retractions indicate that something is blocking or narrowing your airway.

How common are intercostal retractions?

Intercostal retractions are common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Which signs and symptoms can intercostal retractions usually be associated with?

Related signs and symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing


What causes intercostal retractions?

Causes of intercostal retractions can include:

  • Asthma. Asthmais a chronic condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways.
  • Pneumonia. Pneumoniaoccurs when your lungs become inflamed from an infection. It can be very mild in some cases and life-threatening in others. It can also lead to serious complications, especially in older adults and those who have weak immune systems.
  • Epiglottitis. Epiglottitisoccurs when the cartilage that covers the top of your windpipe becomes swollen and prevents air from reaching your lungs. This is a life-threatening medical emergency.
  • Respiratory distress syndrome. Respiratory distress syndromeoccurs when small airways in a newborn’s lungs collapse. It causes serious difficulty breathing. It’s most common in premature babies because they don’t produce a substance called surfactant, which helps keep small sacs in their lungs open. It mainly occurs shortly after birth and can lead to brain damage and other serious complications if the child doesn’t receive prompt treatment.
  • Retropharyngeal abscess. A retropharyngeal abscess is a buildup of pus and other infected material in the back of your child’s throat. It happens mostly in children under 5 years old, and it requires prompt medical treatment and sometimes surgery to prevent it from blocking the airways.
  • Bronchiolitis. Bronchiolitisoccurs when a virus infects the small airways, or bronchioles, in your child’s lungs. It occurs most often in babies under 6 months old and is more common during winter. You can usually treat this at home. If your baby has intercostal retractions or is otherwise working hard to breathe with this illness, seek medical care right away. Bronchiolitis usually goes away in about a week.
  • Croup. Croupoccurs when your child’s windpipe and vocal cords become inflamed due to a virus or bacteria. It causes a loud, barking cough. It typically sounds worse in children under 3 years old because their airways are smaller. It’s usually a mild condition that you can treat at home. Though intercostal retractions are not common with croup, if you do see them, seek medical care.
  • Aspiration. Aspirationoccurs when you inhale or swallow a foreign object that becomes stuck and causes breathing problems. A foreign object lodged in your windpipe can cause intercostal retractions. It’s more common in young children because they’re more likely to breathe in or swallow a foreign object accidentally.
  • Anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxisoccurs when something, such as food or medication, triggers a serious allergic reaction. It usually happens within 30 minutes of encountering an allergen. It can constrict your airways and lead to severe breathing problems. This is a medical emergency that can be fatal without treatment.

The conditions mentioned above are some common causes of intercostal retractions. Consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for intercostal retractions?

You are more likely to experience intercostal retractions if you have any of the conditions mentioned above.

Please consult with your doctor for further information.

When to see your doctor

When should I see my doctor?

Seek medical help right away if intercostal retractions occur. This can be a sign of a blocked airway, which can quickly become life threatening.

Also seek medical care if the skin, lips, or nailbeds turn blue, or if the person becomes confused, drowsy, or is hard to wake up.

On noticing one of these symptoms or having any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor to get the best solutions for your situation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage intercostal retractions?

These following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with intercostal retractions:

  • Conditions such as asthma require you to be vigilant in suppressing your symptoms. Neglecting your underlying condition can cause a relapse of intercostal retractions.
  • Monitoring your health and maintaining communication with your doctor will help you avoid any triggers and keep you in good health.
  • If you or your child has a condition that could lead to intercostal retractions, developing an emergency plan can help relieve anxiety and stress.

You can’t prevent intercostal retractions, but you can lower your risk of having some of the conditions that cause them.

  • You can help prevent viral infections by avoiding contact with people who are sick, washing your hands often, and wiping down the counters and other surfaces in your home if you live with someone who is sick.
  • Try to avoid coming into contact with things that you are allergic to. This can help reduce your risk of having anaphylaxis.
  • You can lower your child’s risk of breathing in a foreign object by keeping small objects out of reach and cutting food into smaller pieces that are easier to chew and swallow.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor for the best solutions.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: February 22, 2019 | Last Modified: February 22, 2019

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