Asthma is a lung disease that causes your airways to swell and narrow, making it very hard to breathe. If asthma isn’t well controlled, it can cause a variety of issues and complications. It can cause your child to miss school and even end up in the hospital. It’s important to have an asthma action plan to help manage your child’s condition.
Asthma is a long-term (chronic) lung disease that affects your airways. Your airways are the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. When you have asthma, you can’t get air into your lungs because your airways swell and get too narrow.
Like a pinched straw, this makes it hard for you to breathe, which can cause wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. Certain triggers can set off or worsen these symptoms, causing an asthma attack. Attacks can come on fast or develop slowly, and they may be life-threatening.
Asthma can begin at any age, but it most often starts during childhood when your child’s immune system is still developing. Most children who get asthma have their first symptom by age 5. Asthma can cause your child to miss school and even end up in the hospital. It’s important to have an asthma treatment plan to help manage your child’s condition.
Asthma is the leading cause of chronic illness in children. It affects about 7.5 million children in the United States. The rate of the condition in children is steadily increasing. It’s also one of the main causes of missed school for children and missed work for parents.
Researchers believe several factors may be leading to more and more children developing asthma. These factors include:
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Not all children have the same asthma symptoms. And symptoms can vary from episode to episode in the same child. Childhood asthma symptoms may include:
When your child has an asthma attack (asthma exacerbation), their symptoms may get much worse. The attacks may come on slowly or quickly. Sometimes, they can be life-threatening (status asthmaticus). If your child has any of the following warning signs of a severe attack, you should get medical help right away:
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of asthma, but it often develops during childhood when your child’s immune system is still developing. Many factors may affect how your child’s lungs develop or how their body fights germs. These include:
No, asthma isn’t contagious. Germs such as bacteria and viruses don’t cause the condition, so it can’t spread from person to person.
There are many risk factors for developing childhood asthma. These include:
If asthma isn’t well-managed, it can cause a variety of issues and complications. These may include:
Asthma is often difficult to diagnose in children, especially when they’re younger than age 6. The condition can have similar symptoms to other illnesses. And some children don’t develop symptoms of asthma often, so it can be mistaken for another respiratory condition. In addition, younger children often can’t perform pulmonary function tests that diagnose asthma.
Your child’s pediatrician may diagnose the disease based on your child’s medical history, symptoms and a physical examination. Your child’s provider will ask you if your child has any history of breathing problems. They’ll also ask about any family history of asthma, allergies or other lung diseases. Be sure to describe your child’s symptoms in detail, including when and how often these symptoms have been occurring.
If possible, your child’s provider may request a few tests to diagnose asthma. These tests may include:
Young children usually aren’t able to perform pulmonary function tests. So your child’s provider may suggest trying asthma medications to see how well your child responds.
Childhood asthma treatment includes the development of an “asthma action plan” with your child’s provider. The plan will detail ways to manage your child’s symptoms and prevent asthma attacks. The plan will also describe:
Make sure you understand this plan and ask your child’s provider any questions you may have. The asthma action plan is important to the success of managing your child’s asthma. Keep it handy to remind you of your child’s daily asthma management plan and to guide you when your child develops asthma symptoms. You should also give a copy of the asthma action plan to your child’s school staff and other caregivers.
In addition to following the asthma action plan, try to limit (and avoid, if possible) exposure to asthma triggers. Your child’s provider can help you with strategies to avoid triggers.
Childhood asthma medications include the same medications that adults and older children take but in different forms and dosages. In the case of inhaled medications, your child may need to use a different delivery device based on their age and ability.
Depending on the severity of your child’s condition, they may need to take medicine only as needed or every day. Some medicines help prevent or relieve symptoms of an asthma attack. Other medicines work to control or prevent the swelling of your child’s airways.
Quick-relief medicines, or short-term relief medicines, help prevent or relieve asthma symptoms. If your child has mild asthma or their condition only occurs with physical activity, a quick-relief medicine may be all they need. These types of medicines include an inhaler your child will carry at all times.
Types of quick-relief medicines include:
Your child’s provider may also prescribe medications for them to take daily to help prevent asthma attacks and control their symptoms. These medicines prevent your child’s airways from narrowing and can help reduce inflammation.
Types of long-term control medicines include:
Most people tolerate asthma medications well, and providers find that the benefits of the medications usually outweigh any risks. However, all medications can have potential side effects. Asthma medication can lead to side effects such as:
If your child develops severe side effects, talk to their provider about adjusting their dose or changing their medication.
You can’t prevent childhood asthma because the exact cause of the condition is unknown. In addition, your child may develop asthma if their immune system is still developing.
Although childhood asthma isn’t preventable, there are some steps you can take to lower your child’s risk of developing it. These steps include:
There’s no cure for asthma. But most children can manage their asthma with appropriate treatment and prevention strategies. Untreated asthma can lead to long-term complications such as permanent lung damage.
You’ll know that your child’s asthma is well-managed if, while on medication, your child:
Once a person’s airways become sensitive, they remain that way for life. About half of children who have asthma have a noticeable decrease in symptoms by the time they become adolescents. Therefore, they appear to outgrow childhood asthma.
However, childhood asthma can come back. About half of the children who seem to outgrow their asthma will develop asthma symptoms again in their 30s or 40s. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict whose symptoms will decrease during adolescence and whose will return later in life.
You should seek care for your child if they have symptoms of asthma along with any of the following risk factors:
If your child is showing symptoms of an asthma attack:
You should call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room if they have any of the danger signs of an asthma attack. These signs include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
By learning about your child’s asthma, you take an important step toward managing their disease. Work closely with your child’s asthma care team to learn how to avoid asthma triggers, what medications to use and how to correctly give them. With proper care, your child can live free of asthma symptoms and maintain a normal, healthy lifestyle.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/18/2023.
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