What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes difficulty in breathing. The airways to and in the lungs are narrowed temporarily. Asthma can be mild or severe. An episode can last from minutes to hours or even days.
Asthma can be life threatening — if your child is finding it difficult to breathe, take them to the nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000).
Using an inhaler and spacer to deliver asthma medications to the airways can help alleviate your child’s asthma symptoms.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
Your child might have asthma if they suddenly have trouble breathing, and cough or make a wheezy sound when they breathe. They are likely to talk about how they feel or appear distressed. A severe asthma attack is very upsetting because your child will feel that they are unable to get enough air.
Symptoms and signs to be aware of include:
- coughing (especially at night), which might be the only sign
- wheezing and shortness of breath
- chest tightness
- waking during the night
- breathing feeling 'tight', lethargy or lack of interest in physical activity
Get urgent medical attention if your child has any of the following symptoms and signs:
- difficulty breathing, seen as rapid breaths, inward movement of the chest wall while breathing in, and grunting while breathing out
- inability to speak
- bluish lips, a sign that not enough oxygen is reaching the body
- tightness in the chest
- constant coughing or wheezing that does not respond to prescribed medicines
How do I manage a severe asthma attack?
If your child has asthma you need an emergency action plan, regardless of how mild or severe their symptoms usually are.
If your child has a severe asthma attack:
- Remain calm and sit your child down.
- For children aged 0 to 5 years, give 2 to 6 separate puffs from the inhaler (usually the blue one) through the spacer. For each puff of medication, your child should take 4 deep breaths before you give the next puff.
- For children aged 6 years or older, give 4 to 12 separate puffs from the inhaler. For each puff of medication, your child should take 4 deep breaths before you give the next puff.
- Wait 4 minutes. If there is little or no improvement, repeat step 2 or 3 above.
If there is still little or no improvement after 4 minutes, call an ambulance and state that your child is having an asthma attack. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, give your child puffs from the inhaler through the spacer as described above. Wait 4 minutes and do it again. Repeat this until the ambulance arrives.
What triggers an asthma attack?
The most common trigger for an acute attack of asthma is a viral infection such as a cold. Asthma can also be triggered by an allergic reaction to a common substance in the air, such as dust, house dust mites, pollen, animal dander (dead skin and fur) and cigarette smoke.
Other triggers for asthma include exercise, cold air, certain drugs and changes in the air environment (such as thunderstorms and bushfire smoke). Asthma attacks can sometimes be prevented by removing the trigger.
Triggers differ between individuals. Some triggers can be avoided, but you will need to plan how to reduce the effect of others.
How should I manage my child's asthma?
A key part of managing asthma is working with your doctor to develop an individualised written asthma action plan for your child. The plan helps you to recognise what triggers your child's asthma, when and how to take medication, and knowing what to do if symptoms get worse.
It is also important to understand what may be causing your child's asthma so you can reduce or remove triggers in the home.
Ask your doctor about aids and tips that will help you care for your child at home. You can talk about when and how to use medications and what devices you will need, such as inhalers and spacers, to help deliver the medication to your child's airways.
It can also help to keep a diary to record when an asthma medication is given and when symptoms appear.
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Last reviewed: March 2021