This page focuses on asthma in children. See also asthma in adults for more information.
In asthma, the small and medium-sized airways in the lungs, called breathing tubes or bronchi, become inflamed. This causes:
These changes cause narrowing of your airways. This can lead to wheezing, coughing, breathlessness and a tight feeling in your chest.
Children with asthma have sensitive airways that react to certain triggers, such as allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction), viruses, cold or humid weather, exercise, emotions such as anxiety and excitement, and air pollutants, such as cigarette smoke.
It is not clear why some children get asthma and others don’t. Asthma is more common in people who have eczema or allergies such as hay fever, so if you have these in your family your child may be more likely to develop asthma.
Common symptoms of asthma include:
Some children have symptoms more often and need to be managed with preventative medication, while other children only have symptoms when they have a cold, are exercising or are exposed to some other trigger.
If your child has mild asthma symptoms, follow their asthma action plan and use their short-acting reliever. If symptoms don't settle you should see a doctor straight away.
Sometimes some children experience severe asthma symptoms. You should follow your child's asthma action plan and give them their reliever inhaler if they have the following symptoms:
See your doctor straight away if symptoms have not improved within a few minutes of using their reliever inhaler or if you are worried.
Dial 111 within New Zealand and ask for an ambulance if your child:
While waiting for an ambulance follow your asthma action plan and use your child's short-acting reliever. Sit your child down and try to stay calm, give 6 puffs of reliever through a spacer, taking 6 breaths for each puff. Repeat this every 6 minutes until your child improves or until help arrives.
If your child has symptoms of hay fever (also known as allergic rhinitis), such as a blocked or runny nose, talk to your doctor. They may recommend medication to treat these symptoms, such as antihistamines or steroid nasal sprays. Treating hay fever can improve asthma symptoms.
Learning what triggers your child’s asthma and finding ways to avoid or reduce the impact of these is an important part of managing your child’s asthma.
If you are concerned your child may have asthma take them to see their doctor, who will:
If your child is diagnosed with asthma, your doctor will help set up an asthma action plan for your child. This plan will be tailored to suit your child’s condition. It will provide advice on how to manage your child’s asthma on a daily basis and how to recognise and handle worsening symptoms.
Read more about asthma action plans for children.
While asthma cannot be cured, the correct use of medication combined with other self-care measures means that symptoms can be well controlled in most children. Once a diagnosis of asthma is made, your doctor will assess which medication is right for your child.
The main aims of asthma treatment are to:
There are many different types of asthma medicines. The choice of medication will depend on how severe and frequent your child's asthma symptoms are. Sometimes your child will have to take more than one.
Asthma medications fall into the main categories of relievers, preventers and corticosteroids (for severe asthma attacks).
Read more about asthma medications.
Asthma medication usually comes in an inhaler (puffer). An inhaler is a device used to get medicine into your lungs and airways. By getting medicine directly to your lungs, a smaller dose of medicine is needed, and it can start working more quickly. The main types of inhaler devices are:
To make using an MDI easier and to ensure that more medicine gets into their lungs, children should always use it with a spacer – a clear plastic tube with a mouthpiece or mask on one end and a hole for their inhaler at the other.
Read more about inhaler devices and spacers.
Asthma New Zealand provides education, training and support to individuals with asthma/COPD and their families. Read more
Learn about lungs Asthma & Respiratory Foundation, NZAsthma KidsHealth, NZ, 2015Asthma NHS Choices, UK, 2018