Children’s Asthma; Causes, triggers, types and treatments

Childhood asthma is a prevalent condition across the world so knowing how to recognise the symptoms and identify it early is a good idea for all parents and educators.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and I am not intending for this article to replace professional medical advice. I have completed a First Aid course including Asthma management and I have a lot of experience managing children with Asthma in early childhood settings, as well as my son’s mild Asthma. You should always consult a medical professional for individual advice and treatment, and First Aid training is a good idea for all adults.

Introduction to Children’s Asthma

Having a child with any kind of medical condition can feel terrifying for parents. Across Australia, thousands of children are diagnosed with asthma each and every year. Knowing and understanding the facts about asthma will help parents know what to look for so they can quickly identify if this might be an issue for their child.

Children’s Asthma
Asthma can be life threatening and it’s important to spread awareness about triggers and treatments to all of the wider community, not just parents and educators.


What is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease that affects the airways of a person. It causes a tightening of the airway muscles along with swelling, inflammation and the production of a sticky mucus that makes it difficult to breathe. As the airway swells and narrows, it can cause a person to cough, wheeze and experience chest tightness and shortness of breath. It is estimated that about one in 10 Australian children have asthma and whilst it can be effectively managed with medication, an asthma attack can become a very serious and life-threatening medical emergency. Asthma is not a condition to be taken lightly so if you suspect that your child might be experiencing some difficulties breathing, you should see a doctor immediately.

Children’s Asthma
(Graphic – NationalAsthma.org.au)

How do you know if your child has asthma?

The symptoms of asthma can range from mild to severe but there are a few key things to look for. A persistent cough that is most prevalent during the night and early in the morning could be a possible sign of asthma. As the airway narrows, a high-pitched whistling sound or wheeze is often heard from asthma sufferers. A doctor can easily identify this sound by listening to a child’s breathing with a stethoscope.

One of the key indicators of asthma is a child having trouble breathing. Unfortunately, identifying if they are having difficulty is not always easy – especially in very young children who might not yet have the language to tell you. A child who is having difficulty breathing could be a medical emergency and the following indicators will help you determine if there is a need to seek urgent medical treatment by calling an ambulance.

–     Clear distress, irritability or restlessness that is out of the ordinary

–     Fatigue and listlessness

–     A deep sucking movement in the chest and throat when the child tries to breathe.

–     An inability to finish sentences when talking

–     Chest pain and chest tightness

It is possible to identify if a child is having difficulty breathing by looking at the area at the bottom of the neck where it connects with the breastbone. If you notice that this area seems to be sucking in and out during breathing, then the child is likely having some trouble breathing and should quickly be seen by a doctor.


What causes Asthma?

It remains unclear about the actual cause of asthma but there are many contributing factors that can make it more likely. A family history of asthma certainly plays a role – so if your parents or siblings have asthma there is a higher chance for developing it. Some research also indicates that there may be a link between childhood asthma and having a mother who smoked during her pregnancy. Children who have a history of viral infections are more likely to develop asthma and there is a theory that babies who aren’t exposed to enough bacteria in their early months and years might be more likely to develop asthma due to their immune system not being strong enough to fight it off.

Children’s Asthma
Childhood asthma can disappear over time, depending on the severity. Managing asthma carefully and being aware of triggers is key to living a normal, active lifestyle.

Can childhood asthma go away?

It is true that asthma symptoms which are evident in childhood can disappear as the child grows older. This occurs most often in children who have mild asthma whilst those who have severe asthma rarely outgrow it. If a child has persistent wheezing and allergies they are also more unlikely to outgrow their asthma, and in some cases, it can actually worsen over time. Diagnosing and treating asthma early is very important and your doctor can write an asthma action plan to help track and monitor the symptoms and detail the specific treatments required. In Australia, children who have asthma that attend child care centres, preschools or schools will be required to have an asthma action plan from a doctor in order to attend the education and care setting. You can learn more about asthma actions plans here: Asthma action plans – National Asthma Council Australia. The child care centre will more than likely also require a risk minimisation plan and communication plan, completed in conjunction with the Nominated Supervisor, and usually they will ask for a reliever inhaler such as Ventolin, be left at the centre in the case of any asthma symptoms occurring while the child is in attendance.


What triggers asthma?

A trigger is defined as a substance, condition or activity that could lead to asthma symptoms. There can be a wide range of triggers for asthma, however some of the most common ones include:

–     Exposure to cigarette smoke

–     Airway infections, such as colds

–     Air pollution

–     Allergy triggers such as animals, mould, dust mites or pollen

–     Cold air or sudden changes in weather conditions

–     Exercise

Children’s Asthma
There are many triggers of asthma, some of the more common ones being pollens, cigarette smoke, cold weather and exercise.

Asthma triggers vary significantly from person to person and symptoms can occur after a delayed response to exposure to the trigger. Most people with asthma will experience more than one trigger and it is important to identify what these are so that effective first aid and medical treatment can be sought as soon as possible.


What are the different types of Asthma?

There are quite a number of different types of asthma, and these are briefly explained below.

Allergic asthma – this is also known as atopic asthma and is triggered by allergens such as pollen, dust mites and pet hair.

Seasonal asthma – this is when symptoms only appear at certain times of the year, like during spring when pollen is prevalent or when it is cold.

Occupational asthma – this is caused through the work that a person does and is a type of allergic asthma. This can be a problem for florists or those that are triggered by latex gloves.

Non-allergic asthma – this is also known as non-atopic asthma and it’s cause is not well understood. Non-allergic asthma often develops later in life and can be severe.

Exercise induced asthma – this occurs when asthma symptoms are triggered only by exercise.

Difficult asthma – this type of asthma is more complex because it involves other health issues, including allergies. Difficult asthma basically means that the condition is harder to manage and often an asthma specialist is needed to determine the best course of treatment.

Severe or brittle asthma – this can only be diagnosed in a specialist asthma clinic and involves those that have frequent asthma attacks and ongoing symptoms despite treatment.

Adult-onset asthma – this is less common but often involves contributing factors such as smoking, obesity or occupational asthma.

Childhood asthma – this affects 1 in 10 Australian children and can range from mild to severe.

You can find out more about the different types of asthma here: Types of Asthma: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment | ACAAI Public Website


How do you treat Asthma?


There are several asthma treatments that are very good at keeping the condition under control. With the right treatment plan, asthma should not stop your child from being able to enjoy a full and active life. A doctor can help develop a plan for the management of your child’s asthma and will prescribe the best medication for the type of asthma that is being experienced.

Children’s Asthma
A child diagnosed with asthma will need to have an asthma action plan for their child care centre or school, usually accompanied with their reliever medication.

The main types of asthma medications are known as preventers and relievers. A preventer will help make the airway less sensitive to triggers and is usually taken daily. A reliever is a medication that can act quickly to relieve the symptoms of asthma by relaxing the muscles around the airway. Both of these medications are usually taken in the form of an inhaler or puffer. You can find out more about asthma medications here: https://asthma.org.au/about-asthma/medicines-and-devices/


What is an Asthma attack?

Very simply, an asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms. An attack is caused by the muscles around the airways tightening and this is called a bronchospasm. During an attack, the airway lining also becomes inflamed, swollen and produces a thick mucus. These things in combination are characteristic of an asthma attack and results in difficulty breathing.

What should you do if someone is having an Asthma attack?

If someone is having an asthma attack it is important to follow the instructions on their medication. If these are not available, the recommendation is to help the casualty administer their reliever medication by giving 4 separate puffs with four deep breaths between each puff. Stay calm and reassure the casualty, as panic will only worsen the symptoms. Loosen any tight clothing and encourage the person to take deep and slow breaths. After administering the 4 puffs, wait 4 minutes before repeating the process again. If there is still no improvement, phone 000 and continue administering 4 puffs every 4 minutes until help arrives. If the casualty falls unconscious, you should commence CPR. St Johns runs some affordable first aid courses that include asthma and anaphylaxis management training. You can learn more about these here: Asthma & Anaphylaxis (stjohnvic.com.au). It is important to know, if possible, if the child also suffers from anaphylaxis, as difficulty breathing can also be due to consuming a food they are highly allergic to. If in doubt, always administer an inhaler first, and refer to the child’s anaphylaxis action plan IF they have one.

If the casualty does not appear to have any inhalers on them, call 000 immediately. An ambulance will most likely have an inhaler on board with them.


Is it better to use a spacer with an inhaler?

Most doctors will recommend the use of a spacer when administering asthma inhaler medications. A spacer is a specially designed device that attaches to the inhaler and has a mouthpiece to breath the medication in through. A spacer helps to direct the medication down into the lungs, allowing it to be far more effective than using the inhaler on its own. A spacer with a face mask can be used for babies and very young children and your pharmacist can show you how to use these devices most effectively.


How can I improve my child’s asthma?

Asthma in childhood can’t be cured, however you can certainly help your child manage the condition effectively by following their asthma action plan. Asthma medications will help your child to experience less symptoms and have less flare-ups, so the right treatment plan is very important. You can also help your child by ensuring that they are not around cigarette smoke and limit their contact with known triggers.

Children’s Asthma
Ventolin is used as a reliever medication, inhaled through the mouth. A spacer can help more of the medication reach the lungs.

Summary of Children’s Asthma

Childhood asthma can be a serious medical condition, but it can also be treated very effectively with medications. A diagnosis does not mean that your child will miss out on the fun things in life and an asthma action plan will ensure that your child’s asthma can be controlled and treated at home, child care or school. In 2022, World Asthma Day is on May the 3rd – consider getting on board and helping raise awareness about this very common condition. World Asthma Day – Asthma Australia.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and I am not intending for this article to replace professional medical advice. I have completed a First Aid course including Asthma management and I have a lot of experience managing children with Asthma in early childhood settings, as well as my son’s mild Asthma. You should always consult a medical professional for individual advice and treatment, and First Aid training is a good idea for all adults.


Attributions

<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/photos/medical’>Medical photo created by rawpixel.com – www.freepik.com</a>

<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/vectors/people’>People vector created by brgfx – www.freepik.com</a>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *