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Airway Clearance Techniques

What are airway clearance techniques?

If your child has a lung disease such as cystic fibrosis, he may have a lot of mucus in the lungs. If the mucus builds up in your child’s airways, it can be hard to breathe. It also makes it easier to get infections. Airway clearance techniques (ACTs) are ways to loosen thick, sticky mucus so it can be coughed up and cleared out of the lungs.

There are many airway clearance techniques. Most are easy to do. Your child’s healthcare provider will work with you to decide which are best for your child. Your provider will probably refer to you a respiratory therapist. Respiratory therapists have special training in lung and breathing problems. The therapist will help you and your child learn how to do the techniques.

Some of these techniques your child can learn to do, and some require special equipment or a trained person to help. The techniques that your child can usually do by himself include:

  • Deep coughing. This is a deep, controlled cough. A deep cough is less tiring and more effective in clearing mucus out of the lungs than a “regular” cough.
  • Huff coughing. To “huff,” your child takes a breath that is a little deeper than normal, then blow the air out like “huffing” onto a mirror or window to steam it up. It is not as forceful as a cough but can work better and be less tiring.
  • Self drainage or autogenic drainage (AD). This technique involves breathing 3 different ways to move mucus out of the lungs. Learning to do it right takes some training and practice. It works best for children over 8 years old.
  • Active cycle of breathing therapy (ACBT). This technique combines gentle breathing, deep breathing, and huff coughs. Your child does these different kinds of breathing in cycles to loosen and move mucus out of the lungs.
  • Physical exercise. Exercise can be another good way to help bring up mucus in the lungs. Also, when your child exercises regularly, his muscles are able to do more work on less oxygen.

Techniques that require equipment or another person to help your child include:

  • Postural drainage and percussion. For this technique, your child lies down in certain positions (postures) so that gravity can help mucus drain from different parts of the lungs. You or a therapist claps your child’s chest, which is called percussion, to loosen and move mucus. This is done in different positions to drain all parts of your child’s lungs.
  • Positive expiratory pressure therapy (PEP). This therapy uses a hand-held device that creates resistance when your child breathes out. This changes pressure in the lungs to loosen mucus.
  • Oscillating positive expiratory pressure or flutter PEP. This technique also uses a handheld device to create resistance when your child breathes out. The difference is that the device flutters or vibrates the airways to loosen mucus.
  • High-frequency chest wall oscillation. For this technique your child wears an inflatable vest that is attached to a machine. The vest gently squeezes and releases from 5 to 20 times per second. This rapid squeezing and releasing helps to vibrates your child’s chest to loosen mucus. This technique may be used with huff cough or with a nebulizer.

Ask your child’s healthcare provider what techniques or exercises will work best for your child.

When trying to loosen and cough up mucus, make sure that your child drinks enough fluids to stay well hydrated. If your child is not getting enough fluids, the mucus will be stickier and harder to cough up. Ask your child’s healthcare provider how much your child should drink each day. Your child’s provider may also recommend medicine, such as guaifenesin, to help keep mucus thin and easier to cough up. ACTs are often used with other treatments, such as inhaled medicines (bronchodilators).

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-04-01
Last reviewed: 2014-04-01
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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