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Quick Facts

Asthma in Children

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is asthma?

Asthma causes the airways to become narrow, which makes it hard for your child to breathe. Asthma often starts in childhood, especially before age 5.

  • Many common things can trigger asthma attacks, such as a cold, allergies, or breathing dust

  • During an asthma attack, your child may wheeze, cough, or feel short of breath

  • Doctors prescribe medicines for your child to take during an asthma attack, and sometimes medicines to help prevent attacks

  • Some children stop having asthma by the time they become adults

  • Not all wheezing in children is asthma

With an asthma attack, two things happen:

  • The muscles around the airways tighten up

  • The airways swell and fill with thick fluid (mucus)

Because of these things, your child's airways become narrow, making it hard to breathe.

What causes asthma in children?

Asthma usually runs in families. Your child’s asthma attacks may be triggered by:

  • Dust, mold, and animal dander

  • Being around cigarette smoke or perfume

  • Exercising, especially in cold or dry air

  • Feelings of fear, anger, or excitement

What are the symptoms of asthma in children?

Common symptoms:

  • Wheezing (a high-pitched sound when breathing out)

  • Tight feeling in the chest

  • Cough, especially in cold air or during exercise

  • Shortness of breath

Sometimes cough is the only symptom.

Go to a hospital emergency department right away or call for emergency medical help (911 in the United States) if your child has any of these warning signs:

  • Trouble breathing, which may include loud wheezing, fast breathing, or gasping

  • Skin that is sweaty and pale

  • Blue lips or fingers from low oxygen in the blood (cyanosis)

How can doctors tell if my child has asthma?

Doctors usually suspect asthma based on your child’s symptoms, especially if asthma or allergies run in your family. Sometimes doctors do tests:

  • Chest x-ray if doctors suspect a different breathing problem, such as pneumonia

  • Allergy testing to find possible triggers for your child’s asthma

  • Pulmonary function tests can confirm asthma if your child is old enough to do the tests

How do doctors treat asthma in children?

To treat mild asthma attacks, doctors will have your child:

  • Use an inhaler to take a fast-acting (rescue) medicine to open the airways

The rescue medicine is a called a bronchodilator. Your child can use a bronchodilator inhaler 1 to 3 times, 20 minutes apart if needed.

To treat severe asthma attacks, go to a hospital emergency department right away or call for emergency medical help (911 in the United States). Doctors will:

  • Give a rescue medicine by inhaler or sometimes in a shot

  • Often give a corticosteroid drug to reduce swelling in your child’s airway

  • Give your child extra oxygen if needed

  • Sometimes start an IV to give medicine in your child's veins

  • Rarely, put a breathing tube in your child's windpipe

  • Sometimes admit your child to the hospital

How can I help my child prevent asthma attacks?

Check your child’s airflow with a peak flow meter. A peak flow meter is a handheld device that measures how fast your child can blow out air out. It'll help you know when your child needs medicine.

Some children need to take long-lasting (maintenance) medicines every day. There are many different maintenance medicines. Some are inhalers and some are pills. Your child may need more than one kind of medicine.

Help your child avoid things that trigger asthma attacks:

  • Keep cigarette smoke, strong smells, and fumes out of your house

  • Help your child avoid cold air

  • If needed, have your child use an inhaler before exercising

  • Have your child use a pillow made of man-made materials and a mattress cover to protect against dust mites

  • Wash sheets and blankets in hot water

  • Keep your house clean to avoid dust mites and cockroaches

  • Use a dehumidifier to dry out the air in any damp places like a basement

How do I use asthma medicine?

Overusing asthma medicines is dangerous. Tell the doctor if your child has to use the medicine more often than prescribed.

A lot of asthma medicine is taken using an inhaler or a nebulizer.

Inhalers

Inhalers (also called metered-dose inhalers) are small, hand-held devices. They are the most common way to take asthma medicines. They turn medicine into a fine spray your child can breathe. An inhaler that has a spacer or holding chamber is easier to use.

Nebulizers

Nebulizers are electric or battery-powered machines that turn liquid medicine into a fine spray your child can easily breathe in through a mask. A nebulizer is too big to carry around.

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