Children's Hospital Colorado

Asthma in Children

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that usually develops during childhood. It occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed (swollen) and constrict (become smaller), making breathing difficult.

Asthma affects all the airways in the respiratory system, from the windpipe (trachea) in the neck to the smallest airways in the lungs. No two children with asthma experience it exactly the same way. Asthma affects the airways of children in three ways:

  • Inflammation (swelling) of the lining of the airways decreases the amount of room there is for air to flow in and out. This swelling can last for weeks after an acute episode, called an asthma attack, or it may become a condition that never completely goes away.
  • Bronchospasm is a tightening of the muscles that surround the airways. This narrows the airway, preventing air from getting in or out of the lungs.
  • Excessive mucus produced in the lungs often blocks the airways.

Symptoms occur when asthma triggers, such as a cold or allergies, irritate the airways. Proper treatment can control asthma in the majority of children. Because symptoms vary from child to child and from episode to episode, four keys to successful treatment include:

  • Individualized care programs
  • Recognizing warning signs of a severe episode
  • Early treatment
  • Avoiding things that trigger asthma attacks as much as possible

What causes asthma in children?

Researchers are still not sure exactly what causes asthma in kids, but they do know that both genetics and the environment can cause it. It is important for parents to learn what causes asthma attacks and increased asthma symptoms for children.

When a child with asthma has difficulty breathing, we call it an asthma attack. Asthma attacks are caused by the three factors described above: inflammation, bronchospasms and excess mucus.

Asthma attacks are set off by things around us called "triggers." Because every child's asthma is different, every child's triggers are also different. Common asthma triggers in children include:

  • Smoking
  • Colds and respiratory viral infections
  • Exercise
  • Strong odors/smells
  • Pollution
  • Perfumes or cleaning agents
  • Environmental allergens (including trees, grass and pets)
  • Dust
  • Mold or mildew
  • Cold air
  • Food allergies
  • Strong emotions or stress

Triggers are specific to each child, but smoking, secondhand smoke and thirdhand smoke have a strong negative effect on children's asthma. Protect your child from secondhand and thirdhand smoke by keeping your home and car smoke-free.

Why is it important to treat asthma in children?

Early identification and treatment of asthma is important to a child's health, growth and development. Untreated asthma can lead to loss of lung function over time and affect your child's ability to participate in sports and other activities. Asthma is also one of the leading causes of school absences.

What is the difference between allergies and asthma?

Asthma is inflammation and obstruction of airflow in the airways. Allergies are one of the factors that can trigger asthma attacks. Not all children with asthma have allergies, and many kids who have allergies do not have asthma.

If your child is old enough, we can perform allergy skin-testing or lab testing for environmental allergens. With these results, our pediatric allergy specialists can determine what your child is allergic to and create a treatment plan to relieve symptoms related to asthma and other allergic reactions.

Children with asthma that is triggered by allergies are also likely to experience other allergic conditions, such as food allergies, hay fever or eczema. Though asthma is an allergic condition that is connected to eczema and food allergies, children who are diagnosed with eczema and food allergies at a young age are often not diagnosed with asthma until they are 2 to 3 years old.

Who gets asthma?

More than 25 million people in the United States, including almost 6.1 million children, have been diagnosed with asthma. Doctors are not sure why some people get asthma, but you are more likely to have it if someone in your family has asthma or allergies.

Asthma can occur at any age, but it is more common in children than adults. Young boys are nearly twice as likely as young girls to develop asthma, but that is not the case in older children and adults. Obesity is a newly identified risk factor for asthma.

The Connection Journey
Helping kids breathe easier

Though it can be scary to learn your child has asthma, receiving a diagnosis and teaching kids how to care for themselves are the first steps to helping them breathe easier. Angela, a mom of two daughters with asthma, shares her family's experience to help Claudia with Yaretzi's journey.

Watch their stories

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