Everything You Want to Know About Asthma in Children
Asthma is a respiratory condition that’s characterized by inflammation of the airways.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, asthma is a common childhood condition that affects roughly 6 million children around the United States.
If your child has asthma, it’s important to understand their triggers and create a long-term treatment plan to keep the condition managed.
This article will explore everything you need to know about asthma in children, including symptoms, triggers, treatment, and more.
It can be difficult to distinguish the symptoms of childhood asthma from other respiratory conditions, such as a head or chest cold.
However, asthma symptoms are usually chronic and can negatively affect your child’s quality of life.
The most common symptoms of childhood asthma include:
- coughing, which becomes worse at night or when your child is sick
- wheezing, which can appear as a whistling or squeaking noise when breathing
- shortness of breath, even when your child is doing normal activities
In addition, there are some other asthma symptoms that can appear in both toddlers and older children.
Toddlers aren’t always able to communicate when they’re not feeling well, which means it’s important for parents to pay attention to any new symptoms. In toddlers with asthma, symptoms may also include:
- trouble sleeping at night
- difficulty breathing during playtime
- fatigue, more than usual
- delayed recovery from respiratory infections
Older children have an easier time communicating symptoms to their parents. In older children with asthma, in addition to the symptoms above, they may also experience:
- lack of energy throughout the day
- chest tightness or complaints of chest pain
- persistent cough at night only
Asthma symptoms can vary from child to child.
Some children will experience only a few of the symptoms above, while others may show obvious signs of respiratory distress.
In some children with severe asthma, a worsening of the symptoms can lead to an asthma attack.
Asthma attack signs
Asthma attacks generally present as a worsening of asthma symptoms. Severe asthma attacks in children may also look like:
- severe shortness of breath
- bluish tint to the lips
- low blood pressure (hypotension)
- high or low heart rate
- agitation or confusion
Severe asthma attacks in both children and adults can be life threatening and require immediate medical attention.
The development of childhood asthma can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
- Genetics. Having a family history of asthma or allergies has been shown to increase the risk of having asthma.
- Allergies. Having allergies may increase a child’s risk of developing asthma. Allergy symptoms can also mimic the symptoms of asthma in children.
- Infections. Having frequent respiratory infections may lead to the development of symptoms of asthma in children, especially in children under age 5.
Some of the risk factors for asthma, such as allergies and infections, can also trigger asthma symptoms in children.
For most children with asthma, there are certain “triggers” that can cause a worsening of symptoms or lead to an asthma attack. Common asthma triggers include:
- respiratory infections, such as the common cold or flu
- physical exercise, especially in cold, dry, or humid weather
- smoke and air pollution, from tobacco, bonfires, and industrial pollution
- allergies, especially to animals, dust mites, mold, and other common allergens
Once you know your child’s asthma triggers, you can make a few lifestyle adjustments to help your child avoid them as much as possible. Here are several examples:
- Teaching your child good personal hygiene can lower their risk of contracting a cold or the flu.
- If your child has exercise-induced asthma, getting treatment to properly manage their condition can help limit restrictions on playtime, sports, and other activities they may enjoy.
- Keeping your house clean of dust, dander, and other allergens can help reduce the risk of allergy-related asthma symptoms.
Diagnosing asthma in children can be difficult, especially when they have a hard time communicating symptoms. There are some diagnostic tools your child’s doctor can use to narrow down a diagnosis.
- Medical history. A pediatrician will likely do a full review of your child’s medical history. They’ll ask about the symptoms your child has been experiencing, the length of those symptoms, and any other conditions they’ve been diagnosed with.
- Blood and allergy testing. If your child’s pediatrician suspects allergies, they can perform blood or skin tests to check for inflammatory markers. They may also choose to perform allergy testing, which can help determine if allergy triggers could be causing asthma symptoms.
- Chest x-ray. Your child’s doctor may choose to perform a chest X-ray to determine if the symptoms are due to conditions other than asthma. A chest X-ray can sometimes also show changes in the airways caused by severe asthma.
Note: One of the most common diagnostic tools for asthma in adults is the spirometry test, which involves using a spirometer to check for lung function.
However, this test is not usually performed on younger children because they have trouble performing the test as directed.
There’s no cure for asthma. Instead, asthma treatments focus on reducing or eliminating the symptoms of the condition and preventing ongoing airway inflammation.
Both clinical and at-home treatments are effective in helping manage the symptoms of childhood asthma.
Even with lifestyle changes, some children will require medication to manage their asthma symptoms. These asthma medications may include:
- bronchodilators, which are medications that help to relax the airways and increase airflow.
- anti-inflammatories, which help to reduce the inflammation and swelling of the airways.
Bronchodilators are generally used as rescue therapies for quick relief of asthma symptoms.
These quick-relief medications, including short-acting beta agonists and anticholinergics, are most helpful during asthma attacks and acute flareups.
Anti-inflammatories are generally used as long-term asthma medications to help manage symptoms and decrease the need for rescue therapies.
These long-term medications, including corticosteroids, and more, help to reduce the inflammation that may cause asthma symptoms.
While most of these medications can be given in multiple forms, younger children generally benefit from utilizing nebulizers and oral medications for their treatment.
Younger children can also be given medications via inhalers using a spacer device and an appropriately sized mask.
At home treatments
There are a few steps that you can try at home with your child to help reduce asthma symptom flare-ups.
- Humidifier. If the air in your home is too dry, it may trigger asthma symptoms. Use a humidifier in or near your child’s room to keep the relative humidity between 30 and 50 percent. Be sure to clean a humidifier often, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Breathing exercises. Practicing breathing exercises with your child can help prevent hyperventilation when symptoms flare up.
- Essential oils. Some research has suggested that diffusing essential oils may help to reduce airway inflammation. However, more research is needed to determine if essential oils can help reduce asthma symptoms, and essential oils are not recommended for children.
How to be prepared
Having an asthma attack can be scary, but there are ways that you and your child can prepare.
The first step you should take after your child has been diagnosed with asthma is to create an action plan. This plan should include information about:
- which medications your child takes
- how often your child takes their medication
- how to notice when your child’s asthma symptoms are getting worse
- when it’s time to head to the hospital
Rescue medications can be used at the start of an asthma attack to open the airways. The dosage that your child needs during an asthma attack may be different, so it’s important to ask your doctor how much medication is needed.
If there’s no rescue medication available or the medication doesn’t help, you should seek immediate medical attention. You can also use these steps with your child:
- Sit your child up straight to keep the airways open as much as possible.
- Use breathing exercises to help them steady their breathing.
- Speak quietly, offer a comforting hand, and try to keep them as calm as possible.
Statistics from the CDC have suggested that roughly half of all children with asthma will have an asthma attack at some point.
Having an action plan ready can help reduce the severity of an attack, but the most important step is to keep your child’s asthma properly managed.
If you’re worried that your child’s asthma is not well managed, you may benefit from using the Childhood Asthma Control Test, which is designed for children ages 4 to 11.
This questionnaire uses a scoring system to help you determine if your child’s asthma is under control. The higher the score, the more managed your child’s symptoms may be.
For children, ages 12 and older, you may benefit from using the Asthma Control Test™. It’s designed and works similarly to the childhood test.
When to see a doctor
If you believe your child may be showing symptoms of childhood asthma, it’s time to visit a doctor. The longer you wait to address their symptoms, the higher your child’s risk is of having an asthma attack if they do, in fact, have asthma.
If your child has been diagnosed with asthma, you can begin a treatment protocol that will improve both the asthma symptoms and your child’s quality of life.
The bottom line
Childhood asthma is one of the most common lung conditions worldwide. Symptoms of asthma in children may include:
- difficulty breathing
- chest tightness
Diagnosis of childhood asthma includes a medical history review and, if necessary, other diagnostic tests.
Treatment options for asthma include both short-term and long-term medications and lifestyle changes to help manage the symptoms.
If your child has been experiencing asthma symptoms, schedule a visit with their pediatrician to find out more.
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