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Recognizing Asthma in Your Young Child

Asthma image

A cough at night. A cold that doesn’t go away. A whistling sound when breathing out. Maybe even a late-night trip to the hospital because that breathing didn’t seem quite right.

If you’ve had any of this happen with your young child, you may be worried and wondering what’s going on. It could be your child has asthma, a serious and sometimes dangerous disease. The good news is that asthma can be controlled, and your child can live a normal and active life.

What are the signs of asthma in young children?
Most children with asthma have symptoms before age five. But it’s sometimes hard for parents, and even doctors, to recognize asthma symptoms in very young children. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers have small and narrow airways in their lungs. Head and chest colds and other illnesses can inflame the lung airways, making them even smaller and more irritated. If this happens a lot, your child may have asthma.

The symptoms of asthma can range from a nagging cough that lingers for days or weeks to sudden and frightening breathing emergencies. Common asthma symptoms include coughing, especially at night; a wheezing or whistling sound, especially when breathing out; trouble breathing or fast breathing that causes the skin around the ribs or neck to pull in tightly; and frequent colds that settle in the chest.

One of the most common triggers
for very young children is the common cold.

Your child might have only one of these symptoms, or most of them. You may think it’s just a cold or bronchitis. But if the symptoms keep coming back, that’s a clue that your child might have asthma. The symptoms also might get worse when your child is around asthma triggers.

Asthma triggers are things that don’t bother most people but can make inflamed lungs even worse for a child with asthma. One of the most common triggers for very young children is the common cold. Other asthma triggers include smoke; allergies to things such as pets, dust mites, and plants; strong smells (perfumes or other odors); changes in weather or cold air; running or playing hard; and crying or laughing.

If your child has asthma, your doctor will help you find out which triggers make symptoms worse. The first step to controlling symptoms is to stay away from the things that make your child cough or wheeze.

How do I find out if my child has asthma?
Asthma is diagnosed with a medical exam and a test that measures the airflow entering and leaving the lungs. But children under five or six can’t easily take the lung test because they have to blow very hard into a tube. Also, infants and toddlers can’t talk about how they feel, so you need to watch for symptoms and describe them to your child’s doctor.

Tell the doctor if anyone in your family has asthma or allergies. If so, it’s more likely that your child has asthma. To help learn your child’s risk for asthma, the doctor may perform an allergy test. Your doctor also may prescribe one or more asthma medicines. If your child gets better while taking the medicine, it can be a signal that your child’s symptoms are due to asthma.

How is asthma treated in young children?
Your child’s treatment will depend on how severe the symptoms are and how often they occur. The doctor may prescribe two types of medicines:

  • Quick-relief
    Any child who has asthma needs a quick-relief medicine to treat the noisy part of the disease – the coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that occur with symptoms or an asthma attack. The medicine should be with the child at all times for use at the first sign of symptoms.
  • Long-term control
    This type of medicine is needed by some children to treat the quiet part of asthma – the inflammation of the airways. It is taken daily to prevent asthma symptoms and attacks.

Are asthma medicines safe for young children?
Asthma medicines are safe and effective when used as directed. Some studies have suggested that continued use of long-term control medicines can slightly slow a child’s growth, but being able to breathe outweighs this risk.

As with any medicine prescribed for your child, talk with your child’s doctor about your questions or worries.

What should I do if I think my child has asthma?
If you think your child might have asthma, talk to your child’s doctor. He or she can help you make an asthma action plan so that you know when your child’s asthma is under control, when you need to change medicines, and when emergency help is needed.

With the right treatment, your child can sleep through the night, avoid missing time from daycare or preschool, and breathe easy.


Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, March/April 2010.