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Recognizing and managing asthma symptoms in kids

January 19, 2024
9 minutes
Your Health
Chronic Conditions

More than 6% of children have asthma. The condition is manageable, but can make it hard for your little one(s) to fully participate in the joys of being a child. Thankfully, understanding signs of asthma in toddlers and older kids can help you understand how to give your child the help they need to breathe easily. With treatment, the vast majority of children with asthma are able to live full, healthy lives, unencumbered by the condition.

Here, we'll take a look at the common symptoms shown by kids who experience asthma, how asthma is diagnosed, and how you can make adjustments to your environment to help your toddlers or kids with asthma get the medication and support they need to thrive.

Common asthma symptoms in kids

It can be tough to figure out if your kids are showing symptoms of asthma. Many kids exhibit common asthma symptoms, such as coughing or wheezing, when they have a cold or other illness. While asthma symptoms can increase when a child is sick, they tend to come and go, even in times of wellness.

Asthma can present differently from person to person, and it's important to keep an eye on your child's symptoms so that you can describe information to their healthcare provider.

Common symptoms of asthma in kids include:

  • Breathing problems, including gasping, breathing rapidly, or experiencing shortness of breath
  • Poor sleep (signs may include feeling tired and irritable, or having dark circles under the eyes that don't go away)
  • Coughing (tends to occur most frequently upon waking or just before going to sleep
  • Chest tightness (your child may describe the feeling as itchy)
  • A whistling sound when they breathe out (wheezing)
  • Infants and babies may struggle to eat or suck
  • Symptoms can come and go. Your child may experience symptoms more often when sleeping, which can make it harder to track how often they experience flare-ups.

While asthma is typically a controllable condition, some children (and adults) experience asthma attacks.

An asthma attack is different from the day-to-day symptoms of asthma. During a severe asthma attack, it may be hard for your child to control their symptoms with medication. Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening, and may include a variety of symptoms such as serious breathing problems, uncontrollable coughing, a very pale or blue appearance (especially in the face, lips, and fingernails). If your child has an asthma attack, it's essential that you get immediate medical attention.

Diagnosing asthma in children

It can be difficult for healthcare providers to diagnose asthma in babies, toddlers, and children. As we mentioned, many common childhood conditions--such as run-of-the-mill respiratory issues--can cause asthma-like symptoms. Before meeting with your child's healthcare provider, you may want to keep a journal of their symptoms so they have the information necessary to assess the frequency and severity of your child's breathing issues. If your child is in school, take a moment at the end of each day to ask them about their asthma symptoms.

Your child's doctor will likely use a number of measures to diagnose your child's condition. Asthma diagnosis tools can include:

  • Physical exam
  • Chest x-ray
  • Discussion and review of your child's health history
  • Tests that show how your child's lungs function (very young children may not be able to perform these tests)
  • Blood tests or allergy skin tests if your child has had allergic reactions in the past

After your child is diagnosed with asthma, your physician will work with you to help you create your asthma action plan. Having a plan in place for the prevention, management, and treatment of asthma can help your child live an active, healthy life after their diagnosis.

Managing asthma triggers at home

Both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the development of asthma symptoms. Paying attention to the environmental factors that seem to trigger your child's asthma can help to lessen their symptoms over time.

Asthma triggers differ from person to person. Some common triggers that can exacerbate asthma symptoms include:

  • Pest waste (such as waste from mice, rats, and cockroaches)
  • Pollen
  • Pets
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Scented home and body care products
  • Exposure to cold air
  • Physical activity

Your child's asthma triggers may change as they get older. Children with asthma who exercise regularly are likely to show an improvement in asthma symptoms and quality of life, according to recent studies. If your child is beginning to exercise for the first time, or is exercising at a new intensity level, it's important to carefully monitor symptoms and have rescue medication readily available.

Understanding asthma medications for kids

While lifestyle changes and trigger avoidance can go a long way in preventing asthma symptoms, medication is typically necessary, even if your child doesn’t have to use an acute rescue inhaler very often.

It can take some time for your child's care provider to discover what medicine, or combination of medicines, works best to alleviate their symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe your child medicines on a trial basis to see what works best for their needs. Asthma medicine can be prescribed in several forms, including pills, liquids for nebulizers, inhalers, and injections. For most kids, inhaled medications are most effective for the treatment of asthma.

It's likely that your child's provider will prescribe at least one acute rescue medication. These medications are given in the form of an inhaler or nebulizer. Albuterol is the most commonly used acute rescue medication for kids with asthma. Your child will only need to take this medication when they have symptoms. If you find that your child's acute rescue medication doesn’t work, or that they need to take it more often than prescribed to keep their symptoms at bay, it's important to seek medical attention right away.

Preventative medicines work to control your child's symptoms long-term. These medications are taken every day and can ease your child's reliance on their acute rescue medication. 

If your child shows symptoms of asthma more than two times per week, it's likely that their care provider will provide preventative medicines. These medications are typically in the form of corticosteroid inhalers, combination inhalers, or tablets that can work to keep the airways open. If these options aren't working for your child, your doctor may talk about adding an injectable medication that can work to control their symptoms.

An important note: Asthma is a nuanced, highly individual disease. While the medications described here are often prescribed for asthma symptoms in kids, it's important to work closely with your child's pediatrician to understand their unique symptom management needs. 

If your child has an asthma attack and their rescue medication does not relieve their symptoms, it's important to seek immediate medical attention by calling 911.

Creating an asthma action plan

It's important that you and your child have a plan of attack when their asthma symptoms appear or worsen. Talking with your pediatrician or respiratory therapist can help you decide when your child can manage their symptoms at home--and when they need to get specialized medical care.

Managing triggers is an important part of any asthma action plan. While many triggers can be avoided (such as spending time in enclosed spaces with someone who is smoking), others cannot (such as pollen and other seasonal allergens). Avoiding triggers when possible and limiting exposure time to triggers that you can't avoid can help to lessen your child's asthma symptoms.

Your child's pediatrician or respiratory therapist may ask that your child use a peak flow meter to understand the severity of their asthma from day to day. To use a peak flow meter, your child will simply forcefully breathe into a plastic tube. The meter will provide their peak flow rate, which indicates how quickly they're able to move air out of their lungs.

In many cases, preventative medication is a key factor in creating a successful asthma action plan. Not all children need preventative medication (especially those who have mild asthma), but kids with moderate to severe asthma symptoms can benefit from daily medication that works to support healthy breathing. Preventative medications are usually in the form of an inhaler or a pill.

Acute rescue medications are key for kids with asthma. It's usually recommended that your child keep their asthma medication with them whenever they're out of the house. Keeping the medication in a teacher's desk or nurse's office can work if your child isn't old enough to use their medication responsibly, but taking this route can cost your child valuable seconds in the event that their symptoms begin to flare.

Finally, it's essential that you have a plan for swift action in the event that your child's rescue medication isn't providing them with the relief they need. Your child's pediatrician or respiratory therapist may recommend that they keep a nebulizer (a machine that delivers a fine mist of asthma medication over an extended period of time) at home, which can help to relieve exacerbated symptoms. It's also important to know the signs that you need to take your child to the emergency room, or call 911.

Signs that your child with asthma needs immediate medical attention include:

  • A peak flow rate in the yellow or red zone (less than 50% of their normal peak flow rate)
  • You suspect the attack may be caused by an allergic reaction
  • Struggles to lie down flat (more comfortable to sit down)
  • Shortness of breath while resting
  • Severe trouble breathing, talking, and/or crying
  • Ribs pull in with each breath
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Change in appearance, including a bluish face or lips, or looking very ill
  • Severe chest pain
  • Need to use acute rescue medication more than every four hours

It's important to keep teachers and coaches in the loop. Even the most conscientious child can get caught up in a fun activity and miss the signs that their asthma is beginning to act up. Talking with your child's teacher, coaches, and other caregivers about your child's asthma warning signs can help ensure that your child gets the help they need, even when you're not around.

Promoting overall wellness in kids with asthma

Tips to help your child with asthma fully enjoy physical activity include:

Keep it fun. Exercise is important for kids with asthma, and many parents and kids find that asthma symptoms in kids begin to dissipate when exercise is included as a part of their normal routine. If your child has recently been diagnosed with asthma, there's a good chance they haven't had a great experience with exercise thus far. Talking with them about what type of activities they enjoy and participating with them--even if you're just playing tag in the backyard--can help boost their health and their confidence.

Teach your child to monitor their symptoms (in an age-appropriate way). Sudden breathing difficulty can be scary, and the feelings of panic that come with the onset of asthma symptoms can contribute to an attack. Helping your child understand how to recognize and treat their symptoms can provide them with a sense of agency over their asthma. Teaching your child to understand when they need to take their rescue medication--and when they need to ask for help--can be an important part of helping your child navigate asthma.

Keep their medication current. Most inhalers have a number on the back of the activator that shows how many doses are remaining in the canister. It's important to keep an eye on this number, so your child doesn't run out of medication. It may not seem like a big deal to skip a dose of preventative medication, but doing so can cause your child's symptoms to flare, triggering an attack.

Evidation: Here to help you feel your best

Just like you track your child's asthma symptoms, it's important to keep track of your own health. At Evidation, our team works to give you the suggestions and tips that you need to be your healthiest self. Download the app today to start making your health data work for you.

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