For Parents of Children with Asthma

Most of the information about asthma in these pages applies to both children and adults, so be sure to visit the rest of the site. But there are some differences and some special concerns about asthma in children.

Diagnosing Asthma in Young Children

Most children who have asthma develop their first symptoms before 5 years of age. However, asthma in young children can be hard to diagnose. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether a child has asthma or another childhood condition because the symptoms of both conditions can be similar.

Young children who have wheezing episodes when they get colds or respiratory infections don’t all go on to develop asthma. The wheezing may be caused when a child’s already small airways get inflamed by an illness. The airways grow as a child grows older, so wheezing no longer occurs when the child gets a cold.

A young child who has frequent wheezing with colds or respiratory infections is more likely to have asthma if:

  • a parent has asthma
  • the child has signs of allergies, including the allergic skin condition eczema
  • the child wheezes even when he or she doesn’t have a cold or other infection

To help your pediatrician make a correct diagnosis, be prepared to provide information about family history of asthma or allergies, the child’s overall behavior, breathing patterns and responses to foods or possible allergy triggers. Lung function tests—often used to make a definitive asthma diagnosis—are very hard to do with young children. The doctor may use a 4 to 6 week trial of asthma medicines to see if they make a difference in your child’s symptoms.

Children and Asthma Medicines

As with any medicine, do not leave asthma medication within reach of young children. A responsible adult should supervise your child while taking medicine until you, your child and the pediatrician agree that he or she is responsible enough to handle it alone.

Children as young as three can use an inhaler with a spacer if get proper instruction and some practice. Children who have trouble using inhalers may find a nebulizer helpful. This is a small machine that converts the asthma medicine into a mist that the child can breathe in through a mask.

If your child must take asthma medicine during the school day, contact the school health services staff to work out a plan. Be sure to share a copy of your child’s Asthma Action Plan.

Click here for tips on communicating with the school about your child’s asthma.

Be aware that sometimes a child who is having an asthma flare may not be able to effectively use an inhaler because they can not breathe in enough air to get the medicine to their lungs. If you suspect this may be happening, get emergency help right away.

Avoiding Asthma Triggers

What are your child’s asthma triggers? Talk to your pediatrician and your child about asthma triggers, and some ways to avoid them. Some important things to keep in mind:

  • Secondhand smoke is harmful to everyone, especially children with asthma. Keep your home and car smoke-free, and try to avoid smoky public places. If you smoke now is the time to quit for your child. The American Lung Association can help.
  • Pets with fur and feathers can be an asthma trigger for many people. Think carefully, and discuss with your pediatrician, before adding a dog, cat or bird to your household. If you already have a pet like this you may need to make some changes. The child’s bedroom at least should be a pet-free zone.
  • Another common trigger for children is exercise. If your child has trouble with sports or other physical activity, talk to your doctor about the possibility of prescribing medicine for use before exercising. Also, keep an eye on the pollen and air quality forecast in your area, and limit the amount of time your child plays outdoors on bad air days.
  • Remember that children can not always control their own environment, and may need you to advocate for them.

Learning Self-Management Skills

Children benefit from being empowered to manage their own asthma and make healthy choices as soon as they are developmentally ready. Talk to your pediatrician and your child about setting specific management goals and follow up on these each visit, since they should change as you child grows.

The American Lung Association’s Open Airways For Schools program is designed to teach children ages 8 to 11 to manage their asthma and lead healthier, active lives.

A Special Word about Teens

The rebelliousness and need for independence that comes with adolescence can be especially difficult for teens with asthma and their families. Children who have been responsibly managing their asthma for years may start to have more problems with symptoms. This could be because of hormonal changes, or it could be because of changes in their attitude and behavior.

Here are a few things that might be causing problems for your teen:

  • Needing to be “normal”: Teens are super sensitive about anything that they think makes them different from their friends. They may feel “uncool” taking medicine. They may be nervous about having an asthma episode in public. Or they may be encountering asthma triggers at a friend’s house that they are uncomfortable dealing with. You may be able to help by encouraging your teen to talk about these feelings. And it is important to keep the lines of communication open between you, the doctor and your teen.
  • Smoking: Smoking and secondhand smoke can cause sudden and severe asthma flares. If your child has started to smoke, or is spending time with smokers, they are going to have a lot of trouble keeping their asthma under control. The American Lung Association Not On Tobacco program can help 14 to 19 year old smokers end their addiction to nicotine. Teen smokers can also get free telephone counseling through the Lung Helpline.
  • Playing sports: Like everyone who has asthma, teens should be able to live healthy active lives, including playing sports if they want to. Check in with the pediatrician to make sure your child’s Asthma Action Plan is up to date, and make sure the coach knows your child has asthma, and has a copy of the Plan.

Staying Positive

You can have a big impact on how well your child deals with asthma by how well you deal with your child’s asthma. Listen to your child. Support him or her. Say how proud you are of how well he or she is managing asthma.

Lungtropolis: Where Kids with Asthma Learn to Play

The American Lung Association and ORCAS are pleased to announce Lungtropolis: Where Kids with Asthma Learn to Play, a new interactive website designed for children with asthma between the ages of 5 to 10 and their parents. » More

Lung Connection: Online Support Community

Lung Connection Community

Our free online community for individuals living with lung disease and caregivers. The community is a place for members to discuss how lung disease affects their lives and to share life experiences with peers. » More