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Asthma in Children - Topic Overview

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This topic provides information about asthma in children. If you are looking for information about asthma in teens and adults, see the topic Asthma in Teens and Adults.

What is asthma?

Asthma makes it hard for your child to breathe. It causes swelling and inflammation camera.gif in the airways that lead to the lungs. When asthma flares up, the airways tighten and become narrower. This keeps the air from passing through easily and makes it hard for your child to breathe. These flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations.

Asthma affects children in different ways. Some children only have asthma attacks during allergy season, when they breathe in cold air, or when they exercise. Others have many bad attacks that send them to the doctor often.

Even if your child has few asthma attacks, you still need to treat the asthma. If the swelling and irritation in your child's airways isn't controlled, asthma could lower your child's quality of life, prevent your child from exercising, and increase your child's risk of going to the hospital.

Even though asthma is a lifelong disease, treatment can control it and keep your child healthy. Many children with asthma play sports and live healthy, active lives.

What causes asthma?

Experts do not know exactly what causes asthma. But there are some things we do know:

  • Asthma runs in families.
  • Asthma is much more common in people who have allergies, though not everyone with allergies gets asthma. And not everyone with asthma has allergies.
  • Pollution may make asthma worse.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. When your child has asthma, he or she may:

  • Wheeze, making a loud or soft whistling noise that occurs when the airways narrow.
  • Cough a lot.
  • Feel tightness in the chest.
  • Feel short of breath.
  • Have trouble sleeping because of coughing and wheezing.
  • Quickly get tired during exercise.

Many children with asthma have symptoms that are worse at night.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Along with doing a physical exam and asking about your child's symptoms, your doctor may order tests such as:

  • Spirometry. Doctors use this test to diagnose and keep track of asthma in children age 5 and older. It measures how quickly your child can move air in and out of the lungs and how much air is moved. Spirometry is not used with babies and small children. In those cases, the doctor usually will listen for wheezing and will ask how often the child wheezes or coughs.
  • Peak expiratory flow (PEF). This shows how much air your child can breathe out when trying his or her hardest.
  • A chest X-ray to see if another disease is causing your child's symptoms.
  • Allergy tests, if your doctor thinks your child's symptoms may be caused by allergies.

Your child needs routine checkups so your doctor can keep track of the asthma and decide on treatment.

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