by Katie Porterfield
September 20, 2011
What is asthma?
An estimated 22 million Americans are living with asthma, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and 6.5 million of them are under the age of 18. A disease that affects the lungs, asthma accounts for 12.8 million missed school days each year, making it the most common chronic childhood illness.
In addition to mild daily symptoms, asthma also causes periodic, severe asthma attacks. During an asthma attack, your child’s airways become swollen and inflamed and the muscles around the airways contract. As your child’s breathing tube narrows, he may cough, wheeze, or have trouble breathing. While many asthma attacks can be treated at home, others require emergency treatment.
When their child is diagnosed with asthma, parents often wonder whether he will be able to exercise or participate in athletics. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology actually recommends that exercise be a regular part of your child’s daily routine as long as his asthma is controlled (usually through the help of medications). In fact, children with asthma can excel in sports—many past and present Olympic and professional athletes, for example, have asthma. Among them: figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, NBA player Dennis Rodman, diver Greg Louganis, and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
What are asthma symptoms?
While most children with asthma begin to show symptoms by 5 years of age, symptoms vary from child to child. Some children have mild symptoms daily, while others have occasional severe attacks. Symptoms can improve as children get older or disappear altogether. A list of symptoms specific to different age groups follows.
Children under 5 years old
Symptoms in children under the age of 5 include coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing, chest pain, and recurring bronchitis. Infants may feed slowly or have difficulty breathing while feeding. Toddlers may tire easily and cough while exercising or not want to run/play because they are out of breath. Colds and other respiratory infections may trigger asthma attacks (or make them worse). Colds may last longer in children with asthma and may include frequent coughing that worsens at night.
Children ages 5–11 years
Symptoms in children 5–11 years old typically include coughing (particularly at night), wheezing, difficulty breathing, and chest pain (tightness and discomfort). Children in this age group may avoid or lose interest in participating in sports or other physical activities due to their breathing challenges. Symptoms may worsen when children are active, have a cold, or are exposed to cigarette smoke. Seasonal allergies may also impact asthma symptoms.
Children 12 years and older
Common asthma symptoms in children 12 years and older include coughing (particularly at night), wheezing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness or discomfort, and avoiding sports or physical activities because of the symptoms.
How do children get asthma?
The causes of childhood asthma are not fully understood, but there are a few factors that that may contribute to this common disease. They include heredity, certain respiratory infections during childhood, and exposure to environmental irritants such as cigarette smoke or air pollution.
How is asthma treated?
Although there isn’t a cure for asthma, it is possible to manage your child’s symptoms. First, it’s important to fully understand your child’s asthma triggers such as secondhand smoke, dust mites, outdoor air pollution, cockroaches, pets, mold, and respiratory infections (such as the common cold and the flu). For more information on triggers and how to avoid them, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
In addition, your pediatrician may prescribe medication to treat your child’s asthma. Asthma medicines can be taken in pill form, but most are taken using an inhaler, a device that allows the medicine to go directly to your child’s lungs. Doctors typically treat the disease with two types of medicines: long-term control medicines, which are taken daily to control asthma symptoms, and quick-relief medicines (also known as “rescue” medicines) that relieve asthma symptoms once they occur and are taken on an as-needed basis. For more detailed information regarding asthma medicines for children, visit the Mayo Clinic website.
If your child’s asthma proves to be triggered by exposure to unavoidable allergens and prescribed medications do not control symptoms, the American College of Allergy Asthma and Immunology suggests talking to your child’s allergist about the possibility of allergy shots (immunotherapy).
How can asthma be prevented?
Whether it causes your child to occasionally miss school or impacts his daily sleep or play, asthma can be extremely disruptive in your child’s life. Preventing your child from getting asthma is difficult because the causes are uncertain and asthma is thought to be hereditary. Breastfeeding continues to be the best defense against allergic disease, particularly in babies with a family history of allergic disease. Exclusive breastfeeding (for at least four months) lowers the risk for asthma and reduces the severity of the disease should symptoms occur.
It’s important for parents to learn to manage their child’s symptoms and prevent asthma attacks. In addition to avoiding proven triggers and taking appropriate medications, work with your child’s health care provider to develop an “asthma action plan.” Such a plan touches on several topics, including tracking asthma symptoms, helping your child avoid triggers, adjusting medications, recognizing and treating an asthma attack, and knowing when to seek emergency care. For a sample “asthma action plan,” visit the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. Keep in mind that, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, children who miss school due to asthma should have their treatment program reevaluated.
When should I call a doctor?
The Mayo Clinic suggests that parents seek immediate medical attention if their child:
If you suspect that you child has asthma, consider taking her to a pediatric allergist for a thorough evaluation. Once your child has been diagnosed with asthma, regular visits with the allergist will ensure that she is getting the treatment she needs.
Katie Porterfield is a freelance writer and former magazine editor in Nashville, Tenn. She is mom to twin boys.
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