Asthma is the leading cause of chronic (long-term) illness in children. It affects more than 7 million children in the United States. For unknown reasons, the rate is steadily increasing. Asthma can begin at any age, but most children who have it have their first symptom by age 5.

Why are more children getting asthma?

No one really knows why more and more children are developing asthma. Suggestions include the following:

  • Children are being exposed to more and more allergens such as dust, air pollution and second-hand (and even third-hand) smoke.
  • Children are not exposed to enough childhood illnesses to build up their immune systems.
  • Lower rates of breastfeeding have prevented important substances of the immune system from being passed on to babies.

What makes a child more likely to develop asthma?

There are many risk factors for developing childhood asthma. These include:

  • Allergies
  • Family history of asthma, allergies, and atopy (a genetic, or inherited, likelihood to develop allergies and asthma)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Low birth weight
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke before and/or after birth
  • Being male
  • Being African-American
  • Being raised in a low-income environment

In children who are under 5 years of age, the most common cause of asthma symptoms is upper respiratory viral infections such as the common cold.

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma in children?

Signs and symptoms of asthma in children include:

  • Frequent coughing spells, which may occur while the child is playing, laughing, or at night or right after waking. Coughing may be the only symptom.
  • Less energy during play
  • Rapid breathing
  • Complaint of chest tightness or the chest "hurting"
  • Whistling sound (wheezing) when the child is breathing in or out
  • Retractions (see-saw motions) in the chest from difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath or loss of breath
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles
  • Feelings of weakness or tiredness

Not all children have the same asthma symptoms. Symptoms can vary from episode to episode in the same child. In addition, not all wheezing or coughing is caused by asthma.

If your child has problems breathing, take him or her to the pediatrician for an evaluation. Your child may be referred to a specialist, such as a pediatric pulmonary provider or a pediatric allergist.