Asthma is a fairly common, but very distressing condition. Records show that in the UK, about one in five families have a family member who suffers from asthma. If one or both parents have asthma, or there is a family history of hay fever, eczema or food allergies there is greater risk, while premature birth, low birth weight and smoking during pregnancy are linked to childhood asthma.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs and airways, making the airways over-sensitive or hyper-reactive to various triggers and prompting excess phlegm, coughing and muscle spasms, with narrowing of the airway walls. In more prolonged attacks swelling of the airway walls causes more narrowing or obstruction. Breathing is then quite difficult because the bronchi leading from the windpipe to the lungs become narrowed, making it hard to take in and exhale air, causing the laboured breathing and the wheezing sound of a full asthma attack.
Some studies suggest that breastfeeding can help to prevent asthma, others contradict this – but as breastfeeding provides so many benefits to your baby the advice is to breastfeed exclusively for six months if possible.
If your child begins wheezing and gasping for breath it may not be an asthma attack, it may be a sign of an upper respiratory tract infection. A child’s airways are small, and a wheezing sound which is not asthma can commonly occur.
If your child has recurring symptoms such as coughing – especially at night and in the early morning – wheezing and coughing after running around, or wheezing or coughing when exposed to dust, animal fur or pollen, your doctor may diagnose asthma.
Asthmatic wheezing or a full asthma attack can be triggered by:
- An allergy to pollen, household dust, mold or fungus spores, furry animals, or certain foods.
- A respiratory infection, cough or cold.
- Smoke from an open fire, or cigarettes.
- Some fumes, paint smells and perfumes.
- Weather changes – sudden sharp cold or wind in particular.
- Exercise (though do not make your child avoid sports and games – wheezing usually settles rapidly on resting, and your child will probably have a medication to use before any sports activity).
- Great excitement or an upset, stress or anxiety can prompt more frequent episodes.
Avoid situations where there are things that you know can trigger an attack, wash your child’s bedding and vacuum mattresses regularly, and don’t do the dusting when your child is in the room.
If your child has an asthma attack:
- At the first sign of laboured breathing and wheezing, sit your child down and speak calmly and reassuringly – if he or she gets frightened it can make the attack worse.
- Give your child any drugs prescribed and keep telling him or her to breathe deeply (sit your child on your lap and do the breathing together).
- If the attack does not respond to treatment after five minutes call your doctor or an ambulance immediately.
- Asthma medications are usually ‘relievers’ – used immediately symptoms occur, and ‘preventers’ – used regularly to help reduce the sensitivity of the airways to asthma triggers. These are usually breathed in through an inhaler, to get the medication straight into the lungs. Babies and young children use a special inhaler with a ‘spacer’ that has a mouthpiece at one end and a hole for the aerosol inhaler at other.
- For a severe attack, a short dose of steroid medication, in soluble tablet form, may be needed to bring the attack under control.
- In some countries, children with asthma are offered an annual influenza vaccination.
- Some surgeries have an asthma clinic for advice, and may help make an ‘action plan’ for managing your child’s condition.
- Always tell your child’s nursery or school about his or her asthma – giving them a copy of the ‘action plan’ and discussing how to give medication in the event an attack.
- Providing you know how to handle the condition properly, there is no need to give your asthmatic child special attention or stop him or her taking part in games and activities.
It is possible that your child may grow out of asthma:
- Research indicates that boys are more likely than girls to grow out of asthma by adolescence.
- If your child’s symptoms were triggered by an infection and there is no family history of asthma or allergies, he or she is more likely to outgrow the condition by around the age of 6.
- If your child’s asthma is caused by an allergy, there is a good chance of growing out of it during his or her ‘teens’.
- If your child has other allergies – including eczema – and develops a wheezy cough in his or her first two years, the chances of it going away lower.
- If the asthma is so severe that your child is often hospitalised, or if a close relative has asthma it is more likely to be a life-long condition.
This information presented to you acts as a guide which contains researched information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.
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