Learning About Asthma in Children

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Location of the lungs and bronchial tubes, with detail of a healthy airway vs. an airway narrowed by asthma

What is asthma in children?

Asthma is a lung disease that makes it hard for your child to breathe. It causes the airways that lead to the lungs to swell and get inflamed.

Some children have breathing problems only at certain times, like during allergy season, or when they get a cold, or when they exercise. Others have breathing problems a lot of the time.

When asthma symptoms suddenly get worse (or flare up), the airways tighten and get narrower. These flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations (say "ig-ZAS-ur-BAY-shuns").

Treatment can help your child feel and breathe better and help keep your child's lungs healthy. Many children with asthma play sports and live healthy, active lives.

What are the symptoms of asthma in children?

When your child has asthma, he or she may:

  • Wheeze. This is a loud or soft whistling noise when breathing in and out.
  • Cough a lot. This is the only symptom for some children.
  • Feel tightness in the chest.
  • Feel short of breath. Your child may have rapid, shallow breathing or trouble breathing.
  • Have trouble sleeping because of coughing and wheezing.
  • Get tired quickly during exercise.

Your child may start having symptoms soon after being around things like pollen or cigarette smoke. This is an early phase response. Or symptoms may start several hours later. This is a late phase response. It can make it harder to know what things cause your child's symptoms.

Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. Your child may have symptoms every day, just now and then, or somewhere in between.

Many children have symptoms that get worse at night. These include a cough and shortness of breath.

How can you help your child manage asthma?

There are things you can help your child do to manage asthma.

Taking asthma medicines as prescribed.

Make sure that your child:

  • Takes controller medicine to treat inflammation every day, not just when your child has symptoms.
  • Uses quick-relief medicine during an asthma attack.
  • Learns how to use inhalers the right way. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for help.
Finding ways to avoid triggers.

Help your child to:

  • Avoid triggers like cigarette smoke, air pollution, dust mites, pollen, pet dander, cockroaches, and cold, dry air.
  • Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Remind your child to wash their hands often. Make sure your child gets the flu vaccine and stays up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
Following an asthma action plan.

This is a written plan that will help your child manage asthma every day and know what to do during an asthma attack. If your child doesn't have an action plan, work with your doctor to make one.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has severe trouble breathing.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child is in the red zone of the asthma action plan.
  • Your child has new or worse trouble breathing.
  • Your child's coughing and wheezing get worse.
  • Your child coughs up dark brown or bloody mucus (sputum).
  • Your child has a new or higher fever.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child needs to use quick-relief medicine on more than 2 days a week within a month (unless it is just for exercise).
  • Your child coughs more deeply or more often, especially if your child has more mucus or a change in the color of the mucus.
  • Your child wakes up at night because of asthma symptoms.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.