In the UK, asthma (which affects the lungs and causes difficulty breathing) affects around 1 in 11 children – that’s 1.1 million across the country. Even more frightening is the fact that a child is admitted to hospital every 20 minutes for an asthma attack.
The good news is that asthma in children – though very widespread – is also typically very easy to keep on top of. When managed and medicated correctly, asthma should not be a condition that negatively impacts your child’s life or puts them in danger on a daily basis. The important thing is to stay organised and educated when it comes to asthma and its symptoms, triggers and treatments.
Asthma Symptoms in Children
The symptoms of asthma are largely the same for children as they are for adults. Signs of childhood asthma include:
- Coughing (particularly in the morning or at night)
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightness or soreness in the chest
- Symptoms that return frequently when your child is not otherwise unwell
- Symptoms that emerge after exercise or that seem to be “triggered” by certain things
- No explanation for the symptoms other than asthma
Diagnosing Childhood Asthma
Asthma in children can be caused by a variety of things. Common risk factors which can help with diagnosis include:
A family history of asthma or allergic conditions such as eczema, hay fever and food allergies · Having another atopic (allergic) condition such as eczema · Having bronchiolitis (a lung infection) in early childhood · Exposure to tobacco smoke · A mother who smoked while pregnant · Premature birth · Low birth weight
Being aware of these risk factors will help your child’s doctor confirm a diagnosis.
Diagnosing Asthma in Toddlers and Infants
It’s not always easy to diagnose asthma in young children. If they are experiencing symptoms and they fall into one of the above groups, then their doctor will probably require a peak flow test, which measures how quickly the lungs blow out air. If your child is not old enough to use a peak flow meter, it can be a good idea to start a symptoms diary and keep track of any triggers that you think may be causing the symptoms.
The problem with getting a firm diagnosis of asthma in toddlers or infants is that it is common for young children to cough, wheeze and feel unwell. However, if your doctor does suspect asthma then treatment may be trialled to see if it has a positive effect.
Treating Childhood Asthma
Asthma in children is treated the same way as asthma in adults. If your child’s symptoms are very mild and tend to only flare up once or twice a week, then a standard blue reliever inhaler will be prescribed (a commonly used brand is Ventolin). A reliever is designed to soothe asthma symptoms when they flare up – it works by opening the airways of the lungs to allow more air to enter.
If your child is suffering symptoms more regularly and needing to use their reliever inhaler more than three times a week then they will be prescribed a preventer inhaler. Preventer inhalers are used every single day, usually once in the morning and once in the evening. Preventers work by soothing the inflammation and sensitivity of the airways that asthma causes. They should be used even when your child appears completely healthy, as the beneficial effects of the medicine inside builds up over time. Your child will also need a reliever inhaler, as a preventer inhaler cannot be used to treat an asthma attack.
Treating Severe Asthma in Children
For children who suffer asthma that is more severe and difficult to handle, it is likely that they will be referred to a specialist asthma consultant. Other asthma treatments such as leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs) can be used in conjunction with preventer inhalers or in place of them if your child cannot take steroids. LTRAs are tablets that relax the airways in the lungs and reduce the irritating effects of triggers and allergens upon the lungs.
Over the age of five, children can also be prescribed a long-acting reliever inhaler, which works in a similar way to a standard reliever. Long-acting relievers open the airways making it easier to breathe, but the effects last for up to 12 hours, far longer than a normal reliever. The effects also take longer to kick in, which is why they aren’t suitable for treating an asthma attack. In very severe cases, your child will require closely managed care from an expert paediatric asthma consultant, high daily doses from a preventer inhaler, a long-acting reliever inhaler, a regular reliever inhaler, and add-on therapies which may include steroid tablets.
Your Child’s Asthma Action Plan
An asthma action plan is a document that contains all the information you need to keep track of your asthma. If you have a child who suffers from asthma, it’s strongly recommended that you make an asthma action plan for them and share it with any friends, family members or teachers who participate in their care.
An asthma action plan should be filled in with the guidance of your doctor or nurse and should list all your child’s medicines, asthma triggers, and what they need to do in the event of a flare-up of symptoms.
Make sure too that your child understands their condition. Children have a great capacity for soaking up knowledge so put it to good use by engaging them in their own treatment and action plan.