Asthma in children

Symptoms, triggers and treatment fo childhood asthma

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways, making it harder to breathe. It is a common childhood condition, with around 1 in 11 children in the UK currently receiving asthma treatment.
 
Childhood asthma is usually easy to manage using reliever inhalers and preventer inhalers. For children to receive the best care, it’s important for parents to understand and recognise the symptoms of asthma and the factors that can trigger an attack.  


Symptoms of asthma


If you think your child may have asthma, there are four main symptoms to look out for:

  • Coughing 
  • Wheezing
  • Breathlessness
  • Tight Chest

 
Coughing

Coughs are common in children, but with asthma, the coughing tends to happen at night or first thing in the morning. Asthmatic children may start coughing when they start to exercise. They may have a persistent cough that doesn’t go away – or that keeps coming back.

 

Wheezing

You may notice a whistling sound as your child breathes out. This is known as wheezing. Not all children with asthma have a noticeable wheeze.

 

Breathlessness

You might notice that your child becomes out of breath easily. They may be more breathless than other children who have been taking part in the same activity, or it might take them longer to get their breath back. They might be breathing with more parts of their body, shrugging their shoulders up and down as they breathe in and out, for example. They may become breathless even if they haven’t been doing anything energetic.


Tight chest

A tight chest isn’t always easy to spot, especially if your child is very young and can’t put their feelings into words. If they do tell you about their symptoms, they might describe a tight chest as a tummy ache. Look out for their non-verbal actions too: if they are rubbing their chest or tummy, this might be a sign.
 
If your child has been experiencing any these symptoms, take them to your GP for a checkup. If they are struggling to breathe, call 999.

 

Triggers to look out for


The symptoms of asthma are often triggered by:

This isn’t a complete list, and every child is different, but knowing the typical triggers can help you to monitor your child’s symptoms. Make a note if there are any obvious triggers that seem to cause the symptoms or make them worse.

Risk factors

Some children have risk factors that make them more likely to suffer from asthma. These include:

  • A family history of asthma or allergy
  • Eczema or other allergic conditions such as hay fever
  • Having had a lung infection called bronchiolitis earlier in their childhood
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke during childhood or in the womb
  • Premature birth or a low birth weight.


Diagnosis

Getting an asthma diagnosis for your child isn’t always easy, because symptoms like coughing are common and could be caused by something else. Keeping a diary of your child’s symptoms, thinking about triggers and mentioning any extra risk factors they may have, will help your GP to make a diagnosis. Recording any coughing, wheezing or breathlessness on your phone is also very useful.
 
For children over 5, a peak flow test, measuring how fast they can breathe out, can diagnose asthma. In children younger than 5, the GP will make a note of their symptoms, family history and risk factors. Even if they don’t get a firm diagnosis at this age, your child’s symptoms can be treated with a blue reliever inhaler, which can be taken whenever they cough, wheeze or get out of breath.


Treatment

Most cases of asthma can be treated with inhalers. Your child should have their inhaler with them all the time, to stop their symptoms from progressing into an asthma attack.
 
For mild symptoms that don’t flare up every day, a blue reliever inhaler (such as a Ventolin Evohaler or Salamol Easi-Breathe) can be taken to relieve the symptoms whenever they occur.
 
For symptoms that happen more often, your child will be issued with a preventer inhaler. This needs to be used every day, whether they are experiencing symptoms or not. It works by reducing the inflammation in the airway that causes asthma symptoms. As well as the preventer inhaler, your child will also need a reliever inhaler, to use when their symptoms flare up. Children over 5 can be prescribed long-acting reliever inhalers, with effects that last up to 12 hours.

Children with severe asthma

If your child’s asthma cannot be managed using inhalers alone, they will be referred to an asthma specialist in a hospital. The specialist may prescribe tablets called leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs) to help treat the airways. For very severe cases, your child will be under the care of a paediatric asthma consultant, who will manage their condition with a combination of treatments.

Asthma Action Plan

An Asthma Action Plan is a useful tool to help you manage your child’s condition. It is a written document that can be used to communicate their medical needs to the nursery, school, childcare providers, and family and friends. An Asthma Action

Plan records information including:

  • Which medicines your child needs to take every day
  • What happens when their asthma gets worse, and how to treat it
  • What to do if they have an asthma attack
  • Their individual asthma triggers
  • Contact details for their doctor and/or asthma nurse.

Filling in and using an Asthma Action Plan can help your child to understand their condition and take action if their symptoms are triggered. It can also be very helpful for parents to consult if they are worried about what to do in any situation.
Keep paper copies of your child’s Asthma Action Plan and give them to anyone who will be looking after your child. It’s also a good idea to keep a picture of the plan on your phone so that it’s available and easy to access whenever you need it.

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