Asthma and your child
Although we don’t hear much about asthma in our everyday lives – unless it touches us personally – it’s a common ailment among children. Around half of the kids who have it will outgrow it – but if it’s left untreated, it can severely damage your child’s airways. One child in 10 in the UK is currently receiving treatment for the condition, and the UK has the highest incidence of severe wheeze in children aged 13-14 years.
What is it?
Basically, asthma is an inflammation of the bronchial airways, and it can be caused by anything from airborne irritants to viral infections. The most common cause, however, is allergies. Other triggers include exercise, and, infrequently, emotional responses. In an attack, the muscles around the walls of the bronchial airways tighten and become inflamed, narrowing the airways. Mucus or phlegm may build up, making the attack worse. The result is extreme shortness of breath and if this isn’t treated or reversed immediately, oxygen levels in the blood fall.
That’s the worse case scenario, but many asthma victims suffer more mild symptoms – common ones include frequent respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, limitations on physical activity, or chest tightness.
Spotting the signs
Diagnosing asthma in young children can be difficult because many children have wheezing in their first five years or so, and not all of them go on to develop asthma. It’s also difficult to assess how well a child’s lungs are working due to the method of testing – the peak flow monitors used to test older children and adults are difficult for a young child to use. Because of this, parents have to be educated and sensitive to subtle cues. Symptoms range from fatigue during moderate exercise to severe shortness of breath, heavy breathing and wheezing. Other signs may include a runny nose and sneezing, headache, congestion, chest tightness, grey or bluish skin, and stressed breathing.
There are many allergy symptoms beyond this list, and they will often correlate with the severity of the asthma condition. If you suspect your child has asthma, or you’re curious about symptoms your child is exhibiting, talk to your paediatrician or an asthma specialist immediately.
You can combine medical treatment with self-help measures to control your child’s asthma.
There are two main types of asthma medicines: relievers and preventers. They work in different ways but both are administered via an inhaler, which ensures medication goes directly to your child’s lungs. Inhalers can come as sprays or powders – if your child is prescribed a spray she can take it through a device called a spacer, which makes an inhaler easier to use. Steroid tablets may also be given after a severe attack.
- Relievers are designed to be taken if an asthma attack starts, and relax the muscles around the airways in order that your child can breathe easily again. Your child needs to keep her inhaler with her or close by at all times.
- Preventers work to reduce the number of severe attacks by calming the sensitive lining of your child’s airways and making her less likely to react to her asthma triggers. She may only need one if she is having to use her reliever more than two or three times a week.
In addition to medical intervention, there are steps you can take to reduce your child’s exposure to the allergens that trigger asthma. Some common solutions include allergy testing to determine whether pollens or dust mites are contributing to your child’s asthma symptoms, reducing the use of household chemicals, keeping your child indoors during high pollen days, keeping surfaces clean of dust and pet hairs, and using an air purifier to keep dust out of the air. Parents should also never allow smoking indoors. Make sure anyone who may be caring for your child, as well as those at her school, are clear on these guidelines and on what triggers your child’s asthma. They should also know how to treat an attack and who to call in an emergency.
Of course the best medicine is to understand when your child is suffering an asthma attack, and have a plan to deal with it. With the consultation of your child’s doctor, you should know when to use medications or emergency medications, or when your child should be treated with emergency care at a hospital or clinic.
Talking to your child
Asthma can be a scary experience for children, especially in extreme cases, when they experience shortness of breath. As you’re analysing your child’s symptoms and putting them through medical testing, keep the lines of communication open. Tell your child about why they feel sick, and help them to understand that the medical care is for their benefit. They should also learn the importance of communicating with you or their carer or teacher when they’re experiencing asthma symptoms. As an educated parent, you’ll be able to help your child understand and manage their asthma.