What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic (long-term) lung disease. It affects your airways, the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. When you have asthma, your airways can become inflamed and narrowed. This can cause wheezing, coughing, and tightness in your chest. When these symptoms get worse than usual, it is called an asthma attack or flare-up.
How does asthma affect children?
Asthma often starts during childhood, usually before age 5. Many children have asthma - it is the most common chronic disease of childhood. It can cause children to miss school and end up in the hospital. But treatments can help manage asthma.
What causes asthma in children?
The exact cause of asthma is unknown. Genetics and environment likely play a role in which children get asthma.
An asthma attack can happen when your child is exposed to an asthma trigger. An asthma trigger is something that can set off or worsen asthma symptoms. Different triggers can cause different types of asthma:
- Allergic asthma is caused by allergens. Allergens are substances that cause an allergic reaction. They can include
- Dust mites
- Pollen from grass, trees, and weeds
- Waste from pests such as cockroaches and mice
- Nonallergic asthma is caused by triggers that are not allergens, such as
- Exercise-induced asthma happens during physical exercise, especially when the air is dry
Asthma triggers may be different for each child and can change over time.
Which children are at risk for asthma?
Certain factors raise the risk of asthma in children:
- Being exposed to secondhand smoke when their mother is pregnant with them or when they are small children
- Genetics and family history. Children are more likely to have asthma if one of their parents has it, especially if it's the mother.
- Race or ethnicity. Black and African Americans and Puerto Ricans are at higher risk of asthma than people of other races or ethnicities.
- Having other diseases or conditions such as obesity and allergies
- Often having viral respiratory infections as young children
- Sex. In children, asthma is more common in boys. In teens, it is more common in girls.
What are the symptoms of asthma in children?
The symptoms of asthma in children include:
- Chest tightness
- Coughing, especially at night or early morning
- Breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, rapid breathing, or gasping for air
- Feeling tired
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Being irritable
- Wheezing, which causes a whistling sound when they breathe out
- Trouble eating or sucking (in infants)
These symptoms can range from mild to severe. They may happen often or only once in a while.
When children have an asthma attack, their symptoms get much worse. The attacks may come on gradually or suddenly. Sometimes they can be life-threatening. Warning signs of a severe attack include severe coughing, serious breathing problems, and turning very pale or blue in the face, lips and/or fingernails. If your child has those symptoms, get medical help right away.
How is asthma in children diagnosed?
It can be hard to diagnose asthma in children, especially if they are young. Asthma has similar symptoms as other childhood conditions. And some children may not have asthma symptoms very often, so it may seem like they are having respiratory infections instead.
Your child's health care provider may use many tools to diagnose asthma:
- Physical exam
- Medical history
- Chest x-ray
- Lung function tests, including spirometry, to test how well the lungs work. Younger children are usually not able to do these tests.
- Allergy skin or blood tests, if you have a history of allergies. These tests check which allergens cause a reaction from your immune system.
If you have a young child who cannot do lung function tests, the provider may suggest doing a trial of asthma medicines. The trial involves giving your child the medicines for several weeks to see whether the symptoms get better.
What are the treatments for asthma in children?
If your child has asthma, you will work with their health care provider to create a treatment plan. The plan will include ways to manage your child's asthma symptoms and prevent asthma attacks, such as:
- Strategies to avoid triggers. For example, if tobacco smoke is a trigger for your child, you should not allow anyone to smoke in your home or car.
- Short-term relief medicines, also called quick-relief medicines. They help prevent symptoms or relieve symptoms during an asthma attack. They include an inhaler to have for your child at all times. It may also include other types of medicines which work quickly to help open your child's airways.
- Control medicines. They work by reducing airway inflammation and preventing narrowing of the airways. Not all children will take control medicines. Whether or not your child needs them depends on how severe the asthma is and how often your child has symptoms.
If your child has a severe attack and the short-term relief medicines do not work, get medical help right away.
Your child's provider may adjust the treatment until the asthma symptoms are controlled.
- Asthma (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
- Asthma Basics (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Childhood Asthma (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology)
- Childhood Asthma (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- For Parents of Children with Asthma (American Lung Association)
- Pediatric Asthma: Overview (National Jewish Health)
- What Is Asthma? (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) Also in Spanish
Diagnosis and Tests
Prevention and Risk Factors
Treatments and Therapies
- Asthma Medicines: Long-Term Control (American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Asthma Medicines: Quick Relief (American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Medications Used to Treat Asthma in Children (American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Treating Asthma in Children Ages 5 to 11 (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Treating Asthma in Children under 5 (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Treating Asthma with Inhaled Steroids (Consumer Reports) - PDF
- What If My Child Doesn't Take His or Her Asthma Medication? (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Asthma Diary (Nemours Foundation)
- Help Your Child Gain Control Over Asthma (Environmental Protection Agency) - PDF
- School and Asthma (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Teaching Your Child about Asthma (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology)
- What's an Asthma Action Plan? (Nemours Foundation)
- When to Go to the ER if Your Child Has Asthma (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Air Pollution and Asthma (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Asthma and Food Allergies (American Academy of Pediatrics) Also in Spanish
- Asthma and Physical Activity in the School (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) - PDF
- Can the Weather Affect My Child's Asthma? (Nemours Foundation)
- If My Child Has Asthma, Can We Keep Our Pet? (Nemours Foundation)
- Allergic asthma: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Videos and Tutorials
- Know How to Use Your Asthma Inhaler (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Asthma in Children (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Environmental management education using immersive virtual reality in asthmatic children in...
- Article: Efficacy of neuromuscular electrical stimulation of calf muscles on nocturnal symptoms...
- Article: Facilitators and barriers to the implementation of the Primary Care Asthma...
- Asthma in Children -- see more articles
Find an Expert
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
- American Lung Association
- Find an Allergist/Immunologist (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology)
- Lung HelpLine and Tobacco QuitLine (American Lung Association)
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
- Air Pollution and Asthma (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Asthma (Nemours Foundation)
- Dealing with Asthma Triggers (Nemours Foundation)
- Do Allergies Cause Asthma? (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Handling an Asthma Flare-Up (Nemours Foundation)
- How Do Asthma Medicines Work? (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Asthma - child - discharge (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Asthma - children (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Asthma - control drugs (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Asthma - quick-relief drugs (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Asthma and school (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Exercise-induced asthma (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Exercising and asthma at school (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- How to breathe when you are short of breath (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- How to use a nebulizer (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- How to use an inhaler - no spacer (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- How to use an inhaler - with spacer (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Signs of an asthma attack (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish