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What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic (long-lasting) lung disease in which the lining of the airways of the lungs is often swollen or inflamed. Asthmatic airways are also unusually sensitive to certain irritants or “triggers.” An asthma trigger can be something your child is allergic to such as pollen, animal dander, or house dust. A trigger can also be an irritant such as tobacco smoke, menthol vapors, cold air, or a cold virus. When the airways react to a trigger, the muscles around the airways tighten and the lining of the airways swells and produces thick mucus. This causes the airway to narrow and makes it harder to breathe. This breathing difficulty is called an asthma attack. An asthma attack can be mild, moderate, or severe. When your child is having an attack, he will usually need to take medicine to relieve the symptoms. If your child has frequent asthma attacks he may need to use medicines every day to better control his asthma.
Asthma does not go away when your child is not having symptoms. The airways are still inflamed. Your child needs to have a treatment plan, called an Asthma Action Plan, and close follow-up by a healthcare provider.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of asthma may come and go. Asthma symptoms may include any combination of:
Other severe symptoms in children are:
How long does it last?
Some children may have asthma symptoms for a few years and then grow out of it. Asthma symptoms often improve during the teenage years. For most children, however, asthma remains active all their lives. Asthma attacks last from minutes to days depending upon the trigger. They may be frightening, but are treatable. When medicines are taken as directed, the symptoms can be controlled or completely cleared up.
What type of medicine does my child need?
Quick-relief medicine, or relievers:
Quick-relief medicines, also called relievers or rescue medicines, quickly open your child’s airways and are used when your child is having an asthma attack. These medicines are called bronchodilators.
If your child is having asthma symptoms (wheezing, coughing, trouble breathing), he should take his quick-relief medicine. If you have any doubt about whether or not your child is wheezing, have your child take his quick-relief medicine. The longer he waits to take his medicine, the longer it takes to stop the wheezing. Once treatment with the medicine is begun, keep giving your child the quick-relief medicine according to the dose prescribed by your healthcare provider. (Your child may need to take the quick-relief medicine for several days.) Caution: if the inhaler hasn’t been used in over 7 days or is new, test spray it twice into the air before using it for treatment.
Long-term control medicines, also called controllers, help prevent asthma attacks. These medicines keep the airways in your child’s lungs from getting inflamed and irritated. Inhaled steroids are one type of frequently used controller medicine. They are considered the most effective long-term therapy for patients with chronic asthma. Although some children with asthma may not need a long-term controller medicine in addition to quick-relief medicines during asthma attacks, many do.
Children with the following symptoms usually need to take long-term control medicines every day to allow them to participate in normal activities:
How can I take care of my child?
Another serious error is continuing to expose your child to an avoidable cause of asthma. For example, do not keep a cat if your child is allergic to it. Also, do not allow smoking in your home. Tobacco smoke can linger in the air for more than a week.
When your child is having an asthma attack, don’t panic. Fear can make trouble breathing worse, so try to remain calm and reassure your child. Finally, try not to let asthma restrict your child’s activities, sports, or social life. If your child’s asthma symptoms are worsening and affecting his lifestyle make an appointment to discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider. A change or increase in asthma medicines may be necessary to gain better control of your child’s asthma.
How can asthma attacks be prevented?
When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?
Call IMMEDIATELY if your child:
Call during office hours if:
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick”, American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2012.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-07-28 Last reviewed: 2010-12-13
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2012 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp., a subsidiary of Merck & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.
The Lancet® is a registered trademark of Elsevier Properties S.A. used under license.