Childhood asthma: What you need to know

Suffering from allergies or asthma? Over-the-counter medications can help, but they're not the only ways to keep your allergy and asthma attacks at bay.

For parents of children who have asthma, it's scary to see your child have trouble breathing. You'll want to learn what you can about this chronic condition so you can recognize the symptoms and help your child manage his or her asthma.

Here's a guide to what you need to know:

What is asthma, and how many kids have it?

About 6 million children in the U.S. have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's a chronic condition that causes the sides of the airways in the lungs to become too narrow so that too little air moves in and out of the lungs.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

When you think of asthma symptoms, you probably think of wheezing. Although that's definitely one of its signs and symptoms, WebMD says there are also others you'll want to look out for in your child, including the following:

  • Frequent coughing spells – may be the only symptom present
  • Less energy while playing – needing frequent breaks when compared to his or her friends
  • Labored, rapid breathing
  • Tightness in the chest or neck muscles
  • Weakness or tiredness
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Frequent headaches 
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms can vary from one child to another, or even from one episode to another for the same child.

How is asthma diagnosed?

If your child has one or more of the above symptoms, a pediatrician can help determine if your child has asthma. This is more difficult if your child is under 5, but in general, the following can aid in diagnosing or ruling out asthma:

  • Family history – A family history of asthma or allergies can increase your child's risk of having these conditions as well.
  • Symptoms – Keep a good record of your child's symptoms, including whether they get worse at any specific time of day, when doing something in particular or around any common triggers.
  • Lung function tests – These tests can help make a definitive diagnosis of asthma, but they can be difficult to perform on very young children.
  • Asthma medications – Your child's pediatrician may suggest that your child try asthma medication for four to six weeks to see if this helps alleviate symptoms.

How is asthma treated?

You can help your child manage the following asthma treatments:

  • Taking medicine – If your child's doctor prescribes medicine, make sure to help him or her take it as prescribed. He or she should also be told about the importance of taking the medicine in order to stay well.
  • Avoiding triggers – Help your child avoid common asthma triggers, including tobacco smoke, dust mites, outdoor air pollution, cockroaches, mold and smoke from burning wood or grass. In addition, if your child has a cold or the flu, he or she should be treated promptly.
  • Getting a flu shot – The flu can make your child's asthma medication more likely to fail, so a yearly flu shot is recommended, according to studies cited by USA Today.
  • Communicating with your child's school – If your child is school-age, he or she will spend much of their day away from you, so it's vital to make sure it's a safe environment. Talk to the school nurse and any other health care personnel about your child's asthma. Provide and explain any medication your child needs to take. You'll also need to give your school permission to communicate with your child's doctor in case of an emergency or change in treatment. Have an Asthma Action Plan on file at the school, and make sure your child has immediate access to quick-relief medicine and knows how and when to use it.