Asthma in children: symptoms, causes and treatment

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Philippe Gloaguen
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Asthma is a common, long-term lung condition that requires ongoing management. Asthma causes sensitivity to the airways, which can become inflamed and narrow with exposure to certain triggers, leading to difficulty breathing.

Symptoms of asthma commonly begin in childhood, but it is possible to develop asthma at any age. This condition cannot be cured, but with a good plan of action, asthma can be well controlled.

In this article

  • Asthma in children: symptoms
  • Managing an asthma attack
  • Outside air quality and why it matters
  • Treatment of asthma
Read also: Asthma of allergic origin

Asthma in children: symptoms

Symptoms of asthma differ from person to person and can come and go, but you can have one or more of the following symptoms:

Signs and symptoms of asthma in children include:

  • A cough that doesn't go away (which may be the only symptom)
  • Coughing fits often, especially during play or exercise, at night, in cold air, or while laughing or crying
  • A cough that gets worse after a viral infection
  • Less energy while playing and pausing to catch your breath during activities
  • Avoid sports or social activities
  • Disturbed sleep due to cough or breathing problems
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Wheezing, a whistling sound when inhaling or exhaling
  • Swinging movements in the chest (retractions)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tight muscles of the neck and chest
  • Feeling of weakness or tiredness
  • Difficulty eating 

These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so if you suspect you have asthma you should see your GP.

What Happens in an Asthma Attack?

In an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways can swell and become inflamed with increased mucus production resulting in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • difficulty in breathing
  • difficulty speaking
  • wheezing
  • blue color of the lips
  • feeling of distress

Things that can increase a child's chances of having asthma include:

  • Nasal allergies (hay fever) or eczema (allergic skin rash)
  • A family history of asthma or allergies
  • Many respiratory infections
  • Low birth weight
  • Exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke before or after birth

Managing an asthma attack

Here's what to do when an asthma attack comes

  • Immediately give 1 puff of the asthma inhaler, repeating 1 puff as needed every 30-60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs
  • Try to stay calm and sit upright (this allows you to breathe easier)
  • If you feel worse or do not feel better after 10 puffs call an ambulance (this ensures that medical assistance is on the way)
  • If the ambulance takes more than 15 minutes to arrive, repeat step 1

Outside air quality and why it matters

Air pollution is the leading environmental risk to human health and the fourth largest threat to public health after cancer, heart disease and obesity. It makes people more susceptible to respiratory infections and other diseases and can have a significant impact on those living with allergies.

There is a proven link between the quality of the air we breathe and the health of people living with disease allergies. Sensitivity to the negative effects of air pollutants will vary from individual to individual, and air pollution levels will also vary seasonally, from day to day.

It is necessary to limit the contact with the triggers: some foods that generate allergies, pet hair (dog, cat, horse), conditions of the internal environment (mites, humidity / mold, cigarette smoke, paints, strong odors) or external (pollen, cold / humid climate, pollution), airway infections represent the major risk factors for asthmatic children. It is important to avoid and prevent them to reduce the possibility of flare-ups.

Changing certain lifestyle behaviors can help fight asthma. In particular, a sedentary lifestyle and exposure to both passive and active smoking in asthmatic adolescents should be avoided. Any sporting activity can be carried out by adopting preventive behaviors such as a pre-medication with a short-acting bronchodilator to control exercise-induced bronchostruction.

Treatment of asthma

Based on your child's history and the severity of the asthma, the doctor will develop a treatment plan, called an asthma action plan. This describes:

  • when and how your child should use asthma medications
  • what to do when asthma gets worse
  • when to seek emergency care.

Make sure you understand this plan and ask your child's doctor any questions you may have.

Your child's asthma action plan is important for controlling asthma. Keep it handy to remind you of your child's daily management plan and to guide you when your child has asthma symptoms. Distribute copies to assistants, teachers, and even your child's bus driver so they know what to do if the child has an asthma attack away from home.

In addition to following your child's asthma action plan, you want to make sure that exposure to asthma triggers is limited and preferably avoided.

There are two main types of asthma medications:

  • Quick-relieving medications help with sudden symptoms. Your child will get them for quick help during an asthma attack.
  • Long-acting drugs prevent inflammation of the airways and control asthma. Your child will likely take them every day. If a newborn or older child has asthma symptoms that require treatment with a bronchodilator drug more than twice a week during the day or more than twice a month at night, most doctors recommend daily anti-inflammatory medications.

Many asthma medications contain steroids, which may have side effects. They can irritate your child's mouth and throat. Some research shows that over time they could cause slow growth, bone problems, and cataracts. After your child takes them, his or her body may not be able to make as many natural steroids. But without treatment, asthma can lead to health problems and hospital visits. You and your doctor should talk about the pros and cons of medications when making an asthma action plan.

Asthma and masks

Scegliere simple surgical masks, therefore, do not use those with greater filtering capacity but less tolerable, such as FFP2 o FFP3, which should be reserved for healthcare personnel or in case of cohabitation with family members affected by Covid-19. In this case it could be (for the healthy relative) to use the FFP2 with valve which guarantee greater comfort for the wearer, although they do not protect the people around. Also avoid using chemicals (such as alcohol o disinfectants), for sanitize le masks, so as to avoid breathing in these products which could contribute to triggering crises bronchospasm for asthma sufferers.

Article sources: Veronesi Foundation "The golden rules for treating asthmatic children", Veronesi Foundation "Is the mask bad for asthma sufferers?", NHS "asthma", WebMd "Childhood Asthma"

  • asthma
  • child asthma
  • asthma children
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