Asthma Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors

Asthma Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors

The number of children with asthma has risen dramatically in the past few decades.  With the wheezing comes worrying. 

Could your child be the one in every ten children leaving site icon who is affected by what is now the most common chronic disease of childhoodleaving site icon Here’s what parents need to know.

Asthma is a health problem that tends to run in families where overly sensitive airways swell, tighten, and produce too much mucus. Who’s at the highest risk leaving site icon of getting asthma?  Children who were born premature, live with smokers, or have parents or close family members who have allergies or asthma are more likely to develop the disease. Health experts are still trying to figure out what causes asthma to develop in susceptible children, but asthma seems to result from both a family tendency and exposure to environmental triggers.

About half of children with asthma develop symptoms by age two, and about 80 percent will have symptoms by age five. But detecting asthma in babies and toddlers can be hard. When very young children get certain lung infections, their tiny airways easily fill with mucus. This can lead to the wheezing sound that may sound like asthma but isn’t. instead, look for these symptoms each time your child gets a cold or viral illness: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing—especially at night, early in the morning, or during /after exercise
  • Wheezing
  • Any of the above that commonly occur when your child gets a cold or respiratory virus

If you think your child may have asthma, don’t wait. Take them to see a doctor. A medical history, certain breathing tests, and allergy screenings can help decide if treatment is needed.

What is causing the asthma symptoms? Possible culprits include cigarette smoke, dust mites and pets. Allergies are a common trigger for asthma symptoms. If your child has allergies, managing the triggers may lead to fewer asthma problems.

Tips for managing triggers

Work with the doctor to find your child’s allergic triggers. Then talk through ways you can avoid or control them. For example:

  • Dust mites. These microscopic bugs thrive in mattresses, pillows, bedding and other cloth items. Encase mattresses and pillows in allergy-proof covers leaving site icon and minimize extra bedding items such as throw blankets, stuffed animals and decorator pillows. Wash bedding regularly in hot water.
  • Indoor mold. Mold and mildew grow in damp areas. Depending on the time of year and area you live in, keep indoor humidity levels no more than 50%. Scrub any visible mold from hard surfaces with water and detergent. Dry the area completely. Repair and seal any leaks.
  • Furry animals. Ban dogs and cats from your child’s room. If your child has a pet hamster, rabbit or guinea pig, have someone else clean the cage.

How can allergies be treated?

Talk with your child’s doctor about allergy treatments. Options include:

  • Nasal sprays. Steroid nasal sprays are now generally the main treatment for allergies. They are safe when used as directed and you can buy them without a prescription.  Check with your child’s doctor before giving them to your child. Prescription drugs. Your child’s doctor has some options in treatments. You can talk through the options during the exam.
  • Allergy shots. This treatment is generally reserved for severe allergies when other treatments don’t work. It helps the immune system become less sensitive to allergy-causing items. Regular visits to the doctor’s office are required for at least three years. Children with severe asthma may not be able to take allergy shots.

To learn more about Asthma and the Taking on Asthma initiative, and to help you breathe easier about your child’s treatment options, visit our website.

Originally Published 6/1/2016; Revised 2020, 2022