What is asthma?
Asthma makes it difficult for your child to breathe. This can happen only every now and then, or in more severe cases, every day. Asthma may also last throughout your child's life (a chronic disease), but you can control it through treatment with medication.
Asthma makes it difficult to breathe because it can cause inflammation
in your child's bronchial tubes, which carry air to the lungs. The inflammation usually starts slowly, but over time it can make the muscles that line the bronchial tubes get tight (bronchospasm
). This can cause a blocking or narrowing of your child's airways, making it difficult to breathe. This is known as an acute asthma episode
(also called an attack, flare-up, or exacerbation).
Acute asthma episodes can happen rarely or often and be mild or severe. Most often, you can take care of symptoms at home by using an asthma action plan, which is a written plan that tells you which medicines you need to use and when you should call a health professional. If you have a severe acute episode, you may need urgent care. These acute asthma episodes can even cause death, but that is rare.
Even if your child has few acute asthma episodes, he or she will still have inflammation in the airways that needs treatment. If the inflammation is not controlled, asthma could lead to permanent changes in the bronchial tubes, harm your child's lungs, and increase your child's risk of complications, such as bronchitis
What causes asthma?
We don't know what causes asthma. But here are some of the things that can cause the inflammation in your child's airways that can lead to asthma and acute asthma episodes:
What are the symptoms?
- Asthma may run in families (inherited).
- In some children, immune system cells release chemicals that cause inflammation in response to certain substances (allergens) that cause allergic reactions. Studies show that exposure to allergens such as dust mites, cockroaches, and animal dander may influence asthmaís development. 1 Asthma is much more common in people with allergies, though not all those with allergies develop asthma.
- Some experts believe there are more cases of asthma because of pollution and less exposure to certain types of bacteria or infections. 2 As a result, children's immune systems may develop in a way that makes it more likely they will also develop allergies and asthma.
Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. Your child may have no symptoms; severe, daily symptoms; or something in between. How often your child has symptoms can also change. Symptoms of asthma may include:
- Wheezing, which is a loud or soft whistling noise that occurs when the bronchial tubes narrow.
- Chest tightness.
- Shortness of breath, which is rapid, shallow breathing or having a hard time breathing.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Tiring quickly during exercise.
Most children with asthma have symptoms that become worse at night (nocturnal asthma).
If your child has only one or two of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean he or she has asthma. The more of these symptoms your child has, the more likely it is that he or she has asthma.
How is asthma diagnosed?
No one test can diagnose asthma. Your health professional will diagnose asthma using spirometry
, as well as your child's medical history, a physical examination, and laboratory tests.
For children age 5 and older, the spirometry test is the most accurate method to diagnose and rate the severity of asthma. It measures how quickly your child can move air in and out of the lungs and how much air is moved. The test can help your health professional decide whether asthma is causing your child's airflow to decrease and by how much. The test can also show how well your child's lungs work when he or she is not having asthma symptoms and can measure how well his or her lungs respond to treatment with medication. Spirometry is not used with babies and small children. Instead, your health professional usually will listen for wheezing and will ask whether your child wheezes or coughs frequently.
While taking your child's medical history, your health professional will ask about your child's symptoms and when they occur, as well as whether symptoms occur when your child has a viral upper respiratory tract infection
(such as a cold) or is exposed to chemicals, pets, cigarette smoke, or other substances. Your health professional will listen to your child's chest for wheezing, which indicates a blocked airway, and will look for signs of sinus problems or allergies. However, a physical exam will not find signs of asthma unless your child is having symptoms.
A chest X-ray
may be done to see whether another disease is causing the symptoms. Blood tests may find evidence of allergies that could cause asthma episodes. If your health professional thinks your child may have asthma related to allergies, skin testing may be done to identify the allergens.
Your child needs routine checkups so your health professional can keep track of the asthma and decide on treatment.
How is it treated?
You can treat your child's asthma with medications, especially inhaled corticosteroids
, which prevent or control airway inflammation, and beta2-agonists, which make the airways larger (dilate). You and your child will usually work with your health professional to form a daily treatment plan and an asthma action plan. These plans help you and your child to:
What can I do to help my child's asthma?
- Control airway inflammation and prevent asthma episodes.
- Identify and treat early symptoms of episodes.
- Avoid things that make symptoms worse, such as cigarette smoke or allergens (triggers).
- Know when emergency help is needed.
As a parent, you and other caregivers play a key role in keeping your child's asthma under control. Although at times you might feel helpless dealing with asthma, you can work with your child's health professional to manage daily symptoms and prevent episodes or to keep them from becoming severe if they do occur. An asthma episode may be severe 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.
By following asthma plans, most children with asthma can live a healthy, full life