Among American children, asthma is the most common cause of chronic illness and sick days from school. Asthma is a chronic (long-lasting) condition that affects between five and ten percent of children younger than 15. Childhood asthma is twice as common in boys as in girls, and about half the time, asthma appears before age 10.
Asthma is not a contagious disease. In an asthma attack, symptoms can come on very suddenly and might last for a few minutes or a few days. The most common symptoms of an “asthma attack” include wheezing, labored breathing, coughing and tightness of the chest. Sometimes, the only symptom is a constant cough. The symptoms can be very mild or very severe, even life threatening.
An asthma attack occurs when the bronchial tubes become swollen and produce too much mucus. Bronchial tubes are the passages that carry air into and out of your lungs. Swelling makes the air passages smaller so breathing produces a wheezing or whistling sound. The extra mucus in the lungs causes your child to cough.
Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergies to pollen, mold spores, animal hair, feathers, and dust mites. Irritants such as tobacco smoke, chemicals, pollution or other irritants can also trigger asthma. Exercise can be a trigger for an asthma attack, but a child with asthma should not stop exercising. Taking asthma medicine before vigorous exercise may prevent an attack.
Exposure to cold air can also trigger an asthma attack. If cold air triggers your child’s asthma attacks, wearing a scarf, ski mask or facemask will help.
If allergies or irritants trigger your child’s asthma attacks, your goal will be to limit the child’s exposure to those triggers. Air conditioners and high-efficiency furnace filters will help reduce the pollen, animal dander or dust in the air. Special bed and pillow coverings can decrease the exposure to dust mites.
Tobacco smoke is a common trigger of asthma attacks. If you smoke, quit—for your child’s sake and your own. Other triggers include stress, a cold or the flu, and some drugs. Sometimes, and for some children, the cause of asthma attacks is unknown.
Asthma symptoms often develop gradually, with asthma attacks getting worse over time. Talk to your health care provider if your child shows any of these signs of asthma:
- Cough - A cough may be the first and sometimes the only symptom of asthma. The Cough may get worse at night, with running or playing, after exercise or after being outside in the cold.
- Wheezing - Wheezing is a high pitched whistling noise mad while breathing. It could be only while breathing in, while breathing out, or both.
- Difficulty breathing - Watch for a faster breathing rate, having a hard time getting air, use of pursed lips, or having a hard time talking. Young children may also show retractions (sucking in of the chest skin) or nasal flares when breathing. Young children may also make grunting sounds with breathing.
- Chest Tightness - The chest hurts, or it is hard to take a breath in.
- Decreased Activity - A child not feeling well from asthma may not participate in normal activities. They may sit instead of playing with friends. Watch for restlessness and irritability.
Your child’s asthma is under control if:
- Your child uses a rescue inhaler less than two times per week.
- Your child does not experience nighttime asthma symptoms more than two times per month.
- Your child does not use more than two canisters of rescue inhaler per year.
Your health care provider can use a variety of tests to determine what is triggering your child’s asthma attacks. These might include a complete physical exam, allergy and breathing tests, and x-rays. To control your child’s asthma attacks, your health care provider might prescribe medicines and might recommend changes in your child’s activities and lifestyle.
Most of all, work closely with your child’s health care provider. He or she will help you find the triggers of your child’s asthma and help you treat or prevent your child’s asthma attacks. There is no cure for asthma, but, with proper care and with help from your health care provider, the symptoms of your child’s asthma can be controlled or prevented.
Children with asthma can have normal, active and happy lives. The more you know about asthma, the more you’ll be able to help your child control the symptoms of asthma. The American Lung Association is a good source of information at 800.586.4872 or lungusa.org.