What is it?
Asthma is a condition characterised by reduced airflow, increased
sensitivity of the airways to several possible triggers, and inflammation of the airways. This can make breathing difficult.
As an allergy, asthma can be triggered by substances in the air. Common triggers
include house dust mites, pollen, and animal fur. Other things that can cause asthma symptoms include tobacco smoke, air pollution, fumes from chemicals (such as bleach), exercise, and colds and chest infections.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of asthma may vary in children. Some just get a dry cough, which often happens at night or in the early morning. Other symptoms include noisy breathing (wheezing), difficulty breathing, and having a tight feeling in their chest.
Children with mild asthma may only get occasional wheezing and coughing, which is usually not distressing. Children with more severe asthma may get symptoms so often that they have to stay away from school.
Children can get really serious asthma attacks from time to time. Signs of this include struggling to breathe, inability to complete sentences in one breath, and having a fast heartbeat or a very slow one. The child may also get a bluish tinge to their lips or fingernails, and become very weak and confused. If any of these things happen, the child needs emergency treatment.
How is the diagnosis made?
Not every wheeze is asthma, and it is not uncommon for children under 5 years to wheeze during cold periods. There is however no specific test for asthma. Several things have to be considered to diagnose the condition, including the child’s symptoms, the results of their tests for lung function, the presence of other allergic conditions (such as conjunctivitis and skin allergy), and whether any close family members have asthma (asthma often runs in families). Tests may be run to see whether other conditions might be causing the child’s symptoms. If a doctor suspects a child’s symptoms are caused by asthma, they will often prescribe a trial of asthma medicine to see if it helps, and then closely monitor for the adequacy of the treatment.
Treatments for asthma
Medicines for asthma fall into two general categories: those used to treat the symptoms (relievers) when they happen, and those that help prevent asthma symptoms from occurring (preventers).
Most asthma treatments are given using inhalers. There are different types of inhalers, and they deliver the medicine in different ways.
These help to get rid of asthma symptoms when they happen. Your child may need two, three, or four puffs from their inhaler to relieve their symptoms. These inhalers may also be useful before exercise, if the child often gets attacks during exercise. They should be carried about at all times, or kept very close when exercising for easy access during attacks. If your child has mild asthma, a reliever inhaler may be the only treatment they need.
If your child starts needing to use their reliever inhaler more frequently than usual, they should see their doctor. They may need additional treatment to control their asthma. And if their reliever inhaler doesn’t improve their symptoms, or their symptoms get worse, seek emergency treatment.
These are used in addition to the quick-relief inhalers, and they help to
prevent the asthma attacks from coming. The main preventer treatment is a ‘corticosteroid’ inhaler and they are similar to chemicals that your child’s body makes naturally to fight inflammation.
However, these inhalers don’t help to stop an asthma attack once it has started because they work too slowly. Your child should use their quick-relief inhaler if they get asthma symptoms. Side-effects include an oral fungal infection and a hoarse voice, and may affect the growth speed of the child.
What if my child is still getting asthma symptoms?
Persistence of asthma symptoms even with the use of preventer inhalers may be due to improper usage, or failure to avoid the asthma triggers. Your doctor may also have to decide if your child needs a higher dose of the inhalers or additional medicines.
What will happen to my child?
Asthma is usually easy and straightforward to manage properly allowing most children with the condition to live healthy, active lives. Asthma doesn’t usually stop children from taking part in everyday activities and exercising. In fact, studies suggest that regular physical activity can actually improve a child’s asthma control, as well as their overall fitness and quality of life.
However, if asthma is not adequately managed and attacks occur often, it may affect the child’s growth on the long term (failure to thrive). Some children with asthma grow out of the condition. But not all do. Children with severe asthma are more likely to still have asthma when they grow up.