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Asthma in Children


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This topic provides information about asthma in children. If you are looking for information about asthma in teens and adults, see the topic Asthma in Teens and Adults.

What is asthma?

Asthma makes it hard for your child to breathe. It causes swelling and inflammationClick here to see an illustration. in the airways that lead to the lungs. When asthma flares up, the airways tighten and become narrower. This keeps the air from passing through easily and makes it hard for your child to breathe. These flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations.

Asthma affects children in different ways. Some children only have asthma attacks during allergy season, when they breathe in cold air, or when they exercise. Others have many bad attacks that send them to the doctor often.

Even if your child has few asthma attacks, you still need to treat the asthma. If the swelling and irritation in your child's airways isn't controlled, asthma could lower your child's quality of life, prevent your child from exercising, and increase your child's risk of going to the hospital.

Even though asthma is a lifelong disease, treatment can control it and keep your child healthy. Many children with asthma play sports and live healthy, active lives.

What causes asthma?

Experts do not know exactly what causes asthma. But there are some things we do know:

  • Asthma runs in families.
  • Asthma is much more common in people who have allergies, though not everyone with allergies gets asthma. And not everyone with asthma has allergies.
  • Pollution may make asthma worse.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. When your child has asthma, he or she may:

  • Wheeze, making a loud or soft whistling noise that occurs when the airways narrow.
  • Cough a lot.
  • Feel tightness in the chest.
  • Feel short of breath.
  • Have trouble sleeping because of coughing and wheezing.
  • Quickly get tired during exercise.

Many children with asthma have symptoms that are worse at night.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Along with doing a physical exam and asking about your child's symptoms, your doctor may order tests such as:

  • Spirometry. Doctors use this test to diagnose and keep track of asthma in children age 5 and older. It measures how quickly your child can move air in and out of the lungs and how much air is moved. Spirometry is not used with babies and small children. In those cases, the doctor usually will listen for wheezing and will ask how often the child wheezes or coughs.
  • Peak expiratory flow (PEF). This shows how much air your child can breathe out when trying his or her hardest.
  • A chest X-ray to see if another disease is causing your child's symptoms.
  • Allergy tests, if your doctor thinks your child's symptoms may be caused by allergies.

Your child needs routine checkups so your doctor can keep track of the asthma and decide on treatment.

How is it treated?

There are two parts to treating asthma, and they are outlined in the asthma action plan. The goals are to:

  • Control asthma over the long term. The asthma action plan tells you which medicine your child needs to take. It also helps you track your child's symptoms and know how well the treatment is working. Many children take controller medicine—usually an inhaled corticosteroid—every day. Taking controller medicine every day helps reduce the swelling of the airways and helps prevent attacks.
  • Treat asthma attacks when they occur. The asthma action plan tells you what to do when your child has an asthma attack. It helps you identify triggers that can cause your child's attacks. Your child will use quick-relief medicine, such as albuterol, during an attack.

If your child needs to use quick-relief medicine on more than 2 days a week, talk to your doctor. This is a sign that your child's asthma is not controlled and can cause problems.

Asthma attacks can be life-threatening, but you may be able to prevent them if you follow a plan. Your doctor can teach you the skills you need to use your child's asthma action plan.

What else can you do to help your child's asthma?

You can prevent some asthma attacks by helping your child avoid those things that cause them. These are called triggers. A trigger can be:

  • Irritants in the air, such as cigarette smoke or other air pollution. Do not expose your child to tobacco smoke.
  • Things your child is allergic to, such as pet dander, dust mites, cockroaches, or pollen. Taking certain types of allergy medicines may help your child.
  • Exercise. Ask your doctor about using an inhaler before exercise if this is a trigger for your child's asthma.
  • Other things like dry, cold air; an infection; or some medicines, such as aspirin. Try not to have your child exercise outside when it is cold and dry. Talk to your doctor about vaccines to prevent some infections. And ask about what medicines your child should avoid.

It can be scary when your child has an asthma attack. You may feel helpless, but having an asthma action plan will help you know what to do during an attack. An asthma attack may be bad enough to need urgent medical care. But in most cases you can take care of symptoms at home if you have a good asthma action plan.

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