Asthma symptoms in children

Asthma is the most common chronic lung disease in children. It involves inflammation and narrowing of the airways, which can make breathing difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 6 million children in the United States have asthma.

Undiagnosed asthma can lead to severe physical and emotional distress, missed school, hospital visits, expensive medical appointments, and missed work as a caregiver. Because other illnesses, such as the common cold, the flu, and even systemic congestion can cause difficulty breathing, sometimes diagnosing asthma can be tricky, especially in very young children.

Knowing the signs and symptoms to look out for can help you raise any concerns with your healthcare provider. It can also give you clues when to seek emergency care.

This article will review the signs and symptoms of asthma in children.

Signs and symptoms of asthma in children

Symptoms of asthma vary from child to child, and sometimes children with asthma have periods without symptoms. Common symptoms include:

  • persistent or intermittent cough
  • wheezing or whistling when breathing
  • fatigue
  • tightness in the chest
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • cough at night
  • noisy breathing

These symptoms may also indicate other illnesses or diseases, so if your child has any of these symptoms, check with your healthcare provider for testing.

asthma attack

While not all asthma symptoms indicate an asthma attack, when symptoms worsen, they can lead to an asthma attack. Symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • wheezing (high-pitched whistling or grunting, mostly when exhaling)
  • cough
  • tight chest
  • Difficulty breathing

What type of asthma do you have?

Causes of asthma in children

No one knows the exact cause of asthma, and it can vary from person to person. In general, however, asthma is caused by the immune system overreacting or overreacting to something in the environment, such as:

  • Allergens (pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mold)
  • Irritants in the air (smoke, chemicals, fumes, strong odors)
  • certain weather conditions (extremely cold, dry or humid air or wind)

This reaction causes inflammation and mucus production that makes breathing difficult. The muscles around the airways may also become tight, making breathing more difficult. Over time, this causes the airways to thicken.

Genetics is also thought to play a role in the development of asthma. This could explain why some people exposed to variables and risk factors develop asthma, while others do not.

Causes and Risk Factors of Asthma

risk factor

Risk factors are variables that increase a person’s risk of developing a disease or condition. Having a risk factor doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the disease, but it does increase your risk. The more risk factors present, the more likely you are to develop the disease.

Asthma is diagnosed disproportionately in urban minority children from low-income families. Black children have higher rates of asthma than Latino or white children.

Black and Latino children also reported more emergency room visits for asthma and asthma morbidity than white children.

Asthma risk factors that children from low-income families may face include:

  • increased pressure
  • low quality home environment
  • polluted air and water
  • exposure to tobacco smoke and pollutants
  • Chronic stress, which is linked to higher inflammation associated with asthma

Other risk factors for childhood asthma include:

  • family history of asthma
  • allergy
  • overweight
  • Respiratory infections in infancy

How and why does asthma happen?

How is childhood asthma diagnosed?

Diagnosing childhood asthma, especially in very young children, can be tricky. In addition to taking a medical history, performing a physical exam, and asking about any risk factors, when symptoms appeared, and what caused them, a health care provider may perform a variety of tests, including:

  • Pulmonary function tests: like spirometry, which measure the amount and speed of air flow when you breathe
  • Spirometer and bronchodilator tests: measure the air in and out before and after inhaling a drug to relax the muscles of the airway
  • Peak Expiratory Flow (PEF) Test: Measures how fast you can blow out air with your maximal effort
  • Fractional expiratory nitric oxide (FeNO) test: Measures the level of nitric oxide in the breath, which can reflect inflammation in the lungs
  • Allergy testing: Let your healthcare provider know if your immune system is responding to certain triggers that may also be triggers for asthma

Getting a diagnosis can be more difficult in children under 6 because they may not be able to do all routine tests. Your provider may decide to prescribe asthma medication for a short period of time to see if your child responds, based on symptoms and reported medical history.

Diagnostic Tests in Asthma Treatment

Treatment and Management

Controlling your asthma is important to prevent any breathing problems and reduce your risk of an asthma attack. Treatment for asthma will depend on your child’s symptoms, overall health, severity of asthma and their age. Your provider may also refer you to a pulmonologist or allergist who specializes in lung disease.

In addition to treatment, identifying any triggers is usually part of a management plan. Avoiding triggers can help your child reduce the risk of symptoms.

The link between asthma and food allergies

Clinical treatment

Your healthcare provider may prescribe short-term reliever medication to help manage symptoms during an attack. If your child has mild asthma symptoms, these may be the only treatments they need. An inhaler will be prescribed, which needs to be carried at all times and used as directed.

Medications used for short-term relief include:

  • Inhaled short-acting beta2 agonist (SABA): relaxes tight muscles around the airways to allow air to pass
  • Oral or intravenous corticosteroids: reduce inflammation during asthma attacks
  • Short-acting anticholinergics: open airways quickly; not as effective as SABAs, but people who cannot tolerate SABAs may find this easier to use

The control drug is for long-term use and is taken daily to prevent symptoms. These can include:

  • inhaled corticosteroids
  • Biologics given every few weeks
  • Leukotriene modulators to reduce inflammation
  • Mast cell stabilizer stops certain immune cells from causing inflammation
  • Inhaled long-acting bronchodilators
  • Immunotherapy

These are the best and safest medicines for asthma

home remedies

Talk to your child’s healthcare provider before using any home remedies or supplements to treat asthma. Even over-the-counter “all-natural” remedies can be dangerous for children or interact with medications.

At home, avoiding known triggers or allergens and following an asthma action plan can help you and your child manage asthma.

What is an asthma action plan?

Everyone with asthma should have an asthma action plan, but this is especially important for children. This written plan contains your child’s name and information, their primary healthcare provider’s name and contact information, instructions on how to manage asthma, and what to do in an emergency. It usually lists medications used, signs and symptoms of worsening conditions, and signs of emergencies.

There are also studies on exercise and dietary changes in children with asthma. For some children, exercising has been found to improve their asthma symptoms.

However, for some children, this can make asthma worse. Talk to your provider before starting any exercise regimen with your child.

Being overweight is associated with worse asthma symptoms and outcomes, and a healthy diet can help with weight management and overall health.

One study found that children who were overweight and followed a dietitian diet not only lost weight, but also had less asthma symptoms, improved lung capacity, and improved quality of life.

Discuss with your healthcare provider whether dietary changes can help and whether there is a dietitian who can oversee a meal plan specifically for children with asthma.

Don’t Ignore These Natural Asthma Treatments

When to see a healthcare provider

Getting an accurate diagnosis of asthma as soon as possible is important to your child’s health. Seek medical attention as soon as possible if your child:

  • find difficulty breathing
  • report tightness in the chest
  • wheezing or chronic cough
  • shortness of breath

When to seek emergency treatment

Sometimes asthma requires emergency treatment. Seek emergency care if:

  • Your child’s lips or nails turn blue
  • The child’s nostrils open when inhaling
  • have persistent wheezing
  • Prescribed treatments do not relieve asthma symptoms
  • They can’t speak because of difficulty breathing
  • The area between/under the ribs and the neck visibly constricts (contracts) when breathing

When to call 911 if you have a severe asthma attack

Outlook for childhood asthma

While there is no cure for asthma, there are ways to manage it. Research is ongoing on improving asthma medications and treatments. With the right diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan, your child can enjoy the activities they have always loved.


Asthma is a common lung disease in children. Symptoms can mimic other diseases, so knowing specific symptoms can help you understand factors that may affect your child and when to see a health care provider. Early diagnosis is important so that inflammation can be addressed and treated.

coexisting with asthma

very good words

Seeing your child having trouble breathing can be a scary thing. But asthma can be treated and controlled, which is why diagnosis is so important.

You can develop a plan with your healthcare provider to identify and avoid triggers and determine what to do if an asthma attack or symptoms worsen.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Asthma usually starts at what age?

    Most children with asthma begin to have symptoms before age 5. Even babies can experience asthma symptoms, so be sure to see your doctor if your child has any symptoms.

  • What does a childhood asthma attack look like?

    An asthma attack usually involves wheezing or coughing. Your child may say that they have chest tightness or difficulty breathing and/or speaking. They may also breathe very fast or very hard.

  • What does an asthma cough sound like?

    In children, the cough may last for days or weeks, especially at night. Wheezing or a high-pitched whistle may also occur when breathing.