In childhood asthma, the lungs and airways become easily inflamed when exposed to certain triggers, such as inhaling airborne pollen or catching a cold or another respiratory infection. Childhood asthma can cause bothersome daily symptoms that interfere with play, sports, school and sleep. In some children, unmanaged asthma can cause dangerous asthma attacks.
Childhood asthma isn't a different disease from asthma in adults, but children do face unique challenges. Asthma in children is a leading cause of emergency department visits, hospitalizations and missed school days. Unfortunately, childhood asthma can't be cured, and symptoms may continue into adulthood. But with the right treatment, you and your child can keep symptoms under control and prevent damage to growing lungs.
Common childhood asthma signs and symptoms include:
Other signs and symptoms of childhood asthma include:
The first signs of asthma in young children may be recurrent wheezing triggered by a respiratory virus. As children grow older, asthma associated with respiratory allergies is more common.
Asthma signs and symptoms vary from child to child, and may get worse or better over time. Your child may have only one sign or symptom, such as a lingering cough or chest congestion.
It may be difficult to tell whether your child's symptoms are caused by asthma or something else. Periodic or long-lasting wheezing and other asthma-like symptoms may be caused by infectious bronchitis or another respiratory problem.
Take your child to see the doctor as soon as possible if you suspect he or she may have asthma. Early treatment will not only help control day-to-day asthma symptoms, but also may prevent asthma attacks.
Make an appointment with your child's doctor if you notice:
If your child has asthma, he or she may say such things as, "My chest feels funny" or "I'm always coughing. Listen for bouts of coughing when your child is asleep. This coughing may or may not awaken your child. Crying, laughing, yelling, or strong emotional reactions and stress also may trigger coughing or wheezing.
If your child is diagnosed with asthma, creating an asthma action plan can help you and other caregivers monitor symptoms and know what to do if an asthma attack does occur.
In severe cases, you may see your child's chest and sides pulling inward as he or she struggles to breathe. Your child may have an increased heartbeat, sweating and chest pain. Seek emergency care if your child:
Even if your child hasn't been diagnosed with asthma, seek medical attention immediately if he or she has trouble breathing. Although episodes of asthma vary in severity, asthma attacks can start with coughing, which progresses to wheezing and labored breathing.
The underlying causes of childhood asthma aren't fully understood. Developing an overly sensitive immune system generally plays a role. Some factors thought to be involved include:
Increased immune system sensitivity causes the lungs and airways to swell and produce mucus when exposed to certain triggers. Reaction to a trigger may be delayed, making it more difficult to identify the trigger. These triggers vary from child to child and can include:
Sometimes, asthma symptoms occur with no apparent triggers.
Asthma can be hard to diagnose. Your child's doctor will consider the nature and frequency of symptoms and may use tests to rule out other conditions and to identify the most likely cause of his or her symptoms.
A number of childhood conditions can have symptoms similar to those caused by asthma. To make things more complicated, these conditions also commonly co-occur with asthma. So your child's doctor will have to determine whether your child's symptoms are caused by asthma, a condition other than asthma, or both asthma and another condition.
Some conditions that can cause asthma-like symptoms include:
The doctor will ask for a detailed description of your child's symptoms and health. Your child may also need medical tests.
If you suspect your child has asthma, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and proper treatment can prevent disruptions from daily activities such as sleep, play, sports and school. It may also prevent dangerous or life-threatening asthma attacks.
For children younger than age 3 who have symptoms of asthma, the doctor may use a wait-and-see approach. This is because the long-term effects of asthma medication on infants and young children aren't clear. If an infant or toddler has frequent or severe wheezing episodes, a medication may be prescribed to see if it improves symptoms.
If your child seems to have asthma that's triggered by allergies, the doctor may want to do allergy skin testing. During a skin test, the skin is pricked with extracts of common allergy-causing substances, such as animal dander, mold or dust mites, and observed for signs of an allergic reaction.
Children with skin conditions or who are taking antihistamines may benefit from allergy blood tests, rather than allergy skin tests.
Asthma may cause a number of complications, including:
Careful planning and steering clear of asthma triggers are the best ways to prevent asthma attacks.
While some alternative remedies are used for asthma, in most cases more research is needed to see how well they work and to measure the extent of possible side effects. Alternative treatments that may help with asthma include:
Herbal remedies and supplements. A few herbal remedies have shown some evidence that they may help in treating asthma, including beta-carotene, black seed, fish oil and magnesium. However, further studies need to be made to confirm their benefit.
Herbs and supplements can have side effects and some may interact with other medications your child is taking. Talk to your child's doctor before trying any herbs or supplements.
Taking steps to reduce your child's exposure to his or her asthma triggers will lessen the possibility of asthma attacks. Steps to help avoid triggers vary depending on what triggers your child's asthma. Here are some things that may help:
It can be stressful to help your child manage his or her asthma. Keep these tips in mind to make life as normal as possible:
Use a written asthma action plan. Work with your child's doctor to develop your child's action plan, and give a copy of it to all of your child's caregivers, such as child care providers, teachers, coaches and the parents of your child's friends.
Following a written plan can help you and your child identify symptoms early, providing important information on how to treat your child's asthma from day to day and how to deal with an asthma attack.
Factors that may increase your child's likelihood of developing asthma include: