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Childhood Asthma

What Is Childhood Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways to your lungs become inflamed. The inflammation can make breathing difficult and painful. Childhood asthma affects almost nine million children in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Childhood asthma can be a potentially serious condition because a child’s airways are smaller than an adult’s.

Asthma in children can be treated effectively with fast-acting medications to curb symptoms. Long-term management of asthma can help your child live a normal, active life.

What Causes Childhood Asthma?

A variety of factors play a role in childhood asthma. According to the Mayo Clinic, some children may have a genetic predisposition toward the disease, (Mayo Clinic). This means that they have inherited a tendency toward asthma or inflammation in general. A sensitive immune system can also increase the odds of a child’s developing asthma.

Environmental factors can produce asthma symptoms in some children. Air pollution, dust, and secondhand smoke can irritate the airways and lead to inflammation.

Allergies and recurring respiratory illness can also cause asthma symptoms in some children. Pet dander, dust mites, and pollen are among the allergens that can trigger asthma symptoms. Colds, the flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia are viruses and infections that affect the lungs. These illnesses can make you more likely to have an asthma attack if you already have a tendency toward asthma.

Extreme hot or cold weather conditions can trigger asthma symptoms, too. Sometimes, childhood asthma occurs with no discernible reason or trigger.

Symptoms of Childhood Asthma

Breathing is difficult when a child’s airways swell or become congested. Acute breathing difficulties are called an asthma attack.

Symptoms of breathing trouble and discomfort can include:

  • frequent coughing
  • noisy breathing, including wheezing, stridor (an abnormal, high-pitched sound), or whistling
  • feelings of tightness or pressure in the chest
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue

Kids and teens who have asthma often heal more slowly from respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and the common cold. Delayed healing is due to chronic inflammation in the lungs. Asthma symptoms can become more pronounced during illness, and attacks may become more frequent.

Each child is different, and symptoms can vary even from one asthma attack to the next. Get your child immediate medical care if he or she shows signs of a severe asthma attack, including:

  • flared nostrils when inhaling
  • inability to speak in full sentences
  • profuse sweating
  • rapid heartbeat

Diagnosing Asthma in Children

Diagnosing asthma can be difficult, especially in very young children. Your child’s doctor will perform a physical examination to rule out health conditions that may mimic asthma symptoms. Acid reflux, sinus infection, and a runny nose can cause wheezing and breathing problems that might look like asthma symptoms.

Kids older than 5 are usually able to participate in a pulmonary function test. This test is one of the primary diagnostic tools used to determine if a child has asthma. During the test, your child will be asked to exhale as hard as possible into a device called a spirometer. The spirometer measures both response time and air volume. In other words, your doctor examines how much air your child can exhale and how quickly. These measurements help determine the capacity and function of the lungs.

Diagnosing asthma in babies and toddlers takes educated guesswork. Your pediatrician will listen to your child’s chest to check that wheezing or other abnormal breathing sounds are coming from the lungs. Your child’s growth patterns will also be assessed to help confirm a diagnosis of asthma. Babies and toddlers who have the condition usually develop on schedule, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Management and Treatment of Childhood Asthma

Parents, children, and doctors should work together to form an asthma management plan. Most often, an allergist works with families to determine an action plan for children with asthma.

Part of the management plan depends on knowing the cause of asthma symptoms in your child. One or more factors may come into play, such as allergies or genetics. Avoiding known allergens can play a large part in managing your child’s asthma symptoms.

Medications taken over the long term to treat and prevent asthma attacks are referred to as controller medications, or sometimes just "controllers." Controllers are designed to minimize inflammation of the airways on a long-term basis. Controller medications may be taken orally or inhaled through a device called an inhaler. Long-term asthma medicines include corticosteroids, long-acting beta agonist drugs, and leukotriene modifiers. Your child’s inhaler may contain one or a combination of these drugs.

Quick rescue medicines are those used to treat an asthma attack when your child experiences symptoms. Quick rescue inhalers deliver a mist of inhaled medication that reaches the airways quickly and works to reduce inflammation. Corticosteroids and short-acting beta agonists are the most commonly prescribed rescue medications for asthma.

Your pediatrician or allergist may also prescribe allergy medications in addition to asthma medicines. Oral allergy medications or allergy shots can help reduce the likelihood of having an asthma attack.

Young children may depend on their parents to help them take asthma medications and to decide when it’s time to use a quick rescue inhaler. Older kids and teens are usually more aware of when they are likely to have an asthma attack and can administer their own medication.

Outlook for Childhood Asthma

Childhood asthma can be controlled effectively with an action plan and medication. Kids who have asthma are encouraged to exercise and participate in activities that are appropriate to their age. Your healthcare provider and support groups can help you through the anxiety of coping with your child’s asthma. Over time, you will learn how to treat and prevent attacks, and how to encourage your child to lead a full and active life.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Erica Roth
Medically reviewed : George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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