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Asthma in Children and Infants

How Can I Tell if my Child Has Asthma?

Not all children have the same asthma symptoms, and these symptoms can vary from episode to episode in the same child. Possible signs and symptoms of asthma in children include:

  • Frequent coughing spells, which may occur during play, at night, or while laughing or crying
  • A chronic cough (which may be the only symptom)
  • Less energy during play
  • Rapid breathing (intermittently)
  • Complaint of chest tightness or chest "hurting"
  • Whistling sound when breathing in or out -- called wheezing.
  • See-saw motions in the chest from labored breathing. These motions are called retractions.
  • Shortness of breath, loss of breath
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles
  • Feelings of weakness or tiredness

While these are some symptoms of asthma in children, your child's doctor should evaluate any illness that complicates your child's breathing. About half of infants and toddlers with repeated episodes of wheezing with shortness of breath or cough (even though these illnesses usually respond to asthma medications) will not have asthma by the age of 6. Because of this, many pediatricians use terms like "reactive airways disease" or bronchiolitis when describing such children (instead of labeling them as asthmatic).

How Common Is Asthma in Children?

Asthma is the leading cause of chronic illness in children. It affects over 9% of children in the United States and, for unknown reasons, is steadily increasing. Asthma can begin at any age (even in the very elderly), but most children have their first symptoms by age 5.

There are many risk factors for developing childhood asthma. These include:

  • Nasal allergies (hay fever) or eczema (allergic skin rash)
  • A family history of asthma or allergies
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Low birth weight
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke before or after birth
  • Black or Puerto-Rican ethnicity
  • Being raised in a low-income environment

Why Is the Rate of Asthma in Children Increasing?

No one really knows the exact reasons why more and more children are developing asthma. Some experts suggest that children spend too much time indoors and are exposed to more and more dust, air pollution, and secondhand smoke. Some suspect that children are not exposed to enough childhood illnesses to direct the attention of their immune system to bacteria and viruses.

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