Asthma in Children

Asthma in childhood is common and it can be serious.

What is asthma?

  • People with asthma have sensitive airways (bronchi and bronchioles). Thus when they are exposed to certain ‘triggers’ such as cigarette smoke or viruses, the airways become narrowed and this makes breathing difficult.
  • Symptoms of an asthma attack include shortness of breath, wheeze (noisy breathing when breathing out), a dry cough (often at night, early morning and during exercise or play), chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Note: there are other causes for each of these symptoms – they do not always mean that the child has asthma but a child with these symptoms should be checked by a doctor.

What causes asthma?

  • It is not yet clear why some people get asthma. Asthma tends to run in families. A child is more likely to get asthma if a parent, brother or sister has asthma or other allergies.
  • Eczema and hay fever are also linked to asthma. If someone in the family has eczema or hay fever, a child is more likely to get asthma.
  • Children who have bronchiolitis in the first year of their life are more likely to develop asthma than other children,
  • Asthma can occur for the first time at any age.

Trigger factors for asthma

  • Common Colds (viral infections) are the most common triggers of asthma attacks in young children (about 70% of attacks).
  • Exercise and play
  • Breathing in allergens is a trigger for some people with asthma, eg pollens, moulds, house dust mite droppings, animal hair and skin flakes, dust.
  • Smoking or passive smoking – smoke irritates the airways.
  • Chemical fumes and strong smells, eg household paint, sprays, perfumes.
  • Changes in air temperature, eg going out into cold night air.
  • Some foods, food additives and colourings, and some medications (eg aspirin).
  • Emotional reactions, such as laughing.

Asthma may be triggered by several of these factors in one person, or the triggers may never be known.


Asthma and young children

It is often difficult to tell whether young children have asthma.

  • Young children have narrower airways anyway and have a lot of colds. For young children most asthma attacks are triggered by a ‘cold’. But cough and wheezing is common in colds and chest infections in young children and may not mean the child has asthma
  • Some young children with asthma may not wheeze. A cough, especially at night, may be the only symptom of asthma.
  • About half of young children with mild asthma will “grow out” of it as they get older, but it is not possible to tell which children will. Children are more likely to go on having asthma if they have allergies, if other people in the family have asthma, or if their asthma is severe.

 Asthma management

  • The most important parts of asthma management are:
    • Learning as much about asthma as you can.
    • Teaching your child how to manage asthma.
    • Getting the right preventive medicine, and reliever medicine to use if the child has an attack.
    • Working out what triggers the asthma and avoiding triggers as much as possible.
    • Recognising asthma symptoms and treating them early.
    • Using asthma medications correctly.
  • An asthma action plan needs to be worked out specially for each child – the medications used and the way they are used depends on the age of the child, how bad the asthma is and how often the child gets an attack.
    • Preventers need to be taken daily even when the child is well. They may take a few weeks to work.
    • Relievers are used to treat attacks, as well as sometimes being useful to prevent symptoms, for example with exercise induced asthma.

What parents can do

  • Find out and control or reduce trigger factors if possible
    • Reducing exposure to household dust may be helpful
    • Do not have a pet, or keep pets outside if your child’s asthma is triggered by exposure to a pet. You could choose a pet that does not trigger asthma, such as fish
  • Keep your home and car smoke free.
  • Encourage your child to eat a balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables.
  • Watch for signs of asthma when your child has a cold and be ready to start the asthma management plan as soon as symptoms appear.
  • Check with the doctor whether management needs to be improved or changed if your child is unwell, tired and not full of energy.
  • Depending on your child’s age, help your child to take as much responsibility as possible for understanding and managing his own asthma.


The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Royal Victoria Medical centre Helpline on +2349020925705, +2349020925707

This topic may use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in turn – please change to suit your child’s sex.


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