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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Diseases and Conditions > Apparent Life-Threatening Event

Apparent Life-Threatening Event

Alternate Names : Apnea Spell, Infant Apnea, Acute Life-Threatening Episode, ALTE

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors | Symptoms & Signs | Diagnosis & Tests | Prevention & Expectations | Treatment & Monitoring

An apparent life-threatening event, or ALTE, is sometimes referred to as a prolonged infant apnea spell. It is an episode in which an infant has apnea, or stops breathing for a short time. The episode lasts long enough to cause:

  • choking and gagging
  • color change in the skin and lips, first bright red then blue
  • muscle weakness and limpness
  • Babies often breathe in cycles. That is, they alternate rapid breathing with slow breathing. This can be normal. Apnea, however, occurs when the baby has an episode of not breathing at all that lasts for more than 20 seconds.

    What is going on in the body?

    What occurs in the body during an ALTE depends on the cause of the episode. A heart or lung problem may cause an infant to temporarily stop breathing. As the lack of breathing continues, the infant may start to struggle for air, cough, and gag. Eventually, as the oxygen level in the blood decreases, the infant may become limp and pale and then may turn blue. This can occur both when an infant is sleeping or when the baby is playing and active. Sometimes simply touching the infant or picking the infant up will make him or her start breathing again. In other cases, advanced medical support may be needed.

    What are the causes and risks of the condition?

    Potential causes of ALTE include:

  • a viral infection such as respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV
  • a bacterial infection such as pneumonia
  • something blocking the infant's airway, such as food that was inhaled into the windpipe or an abnormally narrow airway
  • cardiac arrhythmia, which is an abnormal heart rhythm
  • cardiomyopathy, which is an abnormal growth of the heart muscle
  • gastrointestinal conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disorder, also known as GERD
  • respiratory conditions, such as whooping cough
  • neurological disorders, such as seizures, meningitis, or brain tumors
  • Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a parenting disorder in which a parent fabricates symptoms in the child
  • In approximately 50% of cases of ALTE, the cause is not found.

    Infants who are born prematurely may be at greater risk for an ALTE. Infants who have a history of respiratory or cardiac problems, such as congenital heart disease, may also be at greater risk for ALTE. Infants with other family members who have had episodes of ALTE may also be more at risk.


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    Apparent Life-Threatening Event: Symptoms & Signs

    Author: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Reviewer: Lama Rimawi, MD
    Date Reviewed: 07/13/01

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