Children's Hospital Colorado


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 are alike. Asthma affects the airways of children in three ways:

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

Symptoms occur when airways are irritated from asthma triggers like a cold or allergies. Asthma can be controlled in the majority of children if properly treated. Because symptoms vary from child to child and from episode to episode, four keys to successful treatment are:

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

What causes asthma?

Researchers are still not sure exactly what causes asthma, but they do know it can be caused by both genetics and the environment. It is important to learn what causes asthma attacks and increased asthma symptoms for individuals.

When someone with asthma has difficult time 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 everyone's asthma is different, everyone's triggers are different too. Common asthma triggers include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Colds and respiratory viral infections
  • Exercise (.pdf)
  • Strong odors
  • Perfumes or cleaning agents
  • Environmental allergens (including trees, grasses and pets)
  • Dust
  • Mold or mildew
  • Cold air
  • Food allergies

Triggers are specific to each child, but smoking and secondhand smoke have been found to have a strong negative effect on children's asthma. Protect your child from secondhand smoke by keeping your home and car smoke free. If you or someone you know is a smoker and is considering quitting, try visiting Colorado QuitLine for ideas or assistance.

Download the ONE Step brochure (.pdf) today for tips on how to quit smoking. You can also download the ONE Step brochure (.pdf) in Spanish.

Why is it important to treat asthma?

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 interfere with your child's participation in sports and 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 people with asthma have allergies, and there are many people who have allergies but do not have asthma. If your child is old enough, skin-testing (.pdf) or lab testing for environmental allergens can be performed.

Who gets asthma?

More than 22 million people in the United States, including almost 7 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 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.

Helpful resources


What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

The signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Frequent cough
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing with exercise
  • Coughing during the night
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Frequent respiratory illnesses or pneumonia

If you have any of these symptoms on a regular basis, you should see your healthcare provider.

Late signs of an asthma episode require immediate emergency care. These include:

  • Difficulty breathing while walking or talking
  • A change in skin, fingernail or lip color to gray or blue
  • Inward movement of the muscles in the neck, chest or ribs or flaring of the nostrils
  • Failure of medications to reverse or control worsening symptoms
  • Declining peak flow meter readings in spite of medication use (A peak flow meter measures how fast a child can blow air out of his or her lungs.)

How do healthcare providers at Children's Hospital Colorado make a diagnosis?

To diagnose asthma, our healthcare providers will ask questions about your child's symptoms, medical history and your family medical history, and then perform a physical exam. The most common test used to diagnose asthma is called spirometry. If your child has allergies, your healthcare provider may conduct allergy skin-testing as well.

What tests are used to diagnose asthma?

In spirometry, the child takes a deep breath and blows out the air as fast as possible. A child-friendly computer and respiratory therapist coaches the child how to do the test. This is a painless test that children find fun to do and provides valuable information for parents and the healthcare provider.

In general, children starting at age 5 can perform spirometry. The results show the total volume of air breathed out and if the flow of air from the large and small airways is normal. If the results are low, your child may be given an inhaled medication called albuterol and the spirometry test is repeated 15 minutes later to see if the results improve. This test is used to diagnose asthma as well as other lung conditions.

Depending on the child and his or her symptoms, healthcare providers might use other tests to diagnose asthma, including the Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction (EIB) Test and the Methacholine Challenge.  The EIB test is performed by doing a series of spirometry maneuvers before and after exercising on a treadmill. It measures airway reactivity to exercise.

The Methacholine Challenge uses a gas called methacholine to determine airway reactivity. It involves the patient breathing the gas and doing a series of spirometry tests.

Read more about our pulmonary function tests.

How is asthma treated?

A boy with brown hair and a red shirt holds an asthma inhaler up to his mouth

Medications used in the treatment of asthma work to relieve and prevent symptoms by decreasing inflammation and bronchoconstriction (swelling and spasm in the lungs). 

  • Quick relief medication provides fast relief of asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing by relaxing the muscles in and around the airways. This type of medication is known as a bronchodilator.
  • Controller medication is used on a daily basis to avoid asthma symptoms by preventing inflammation or swelling inside the airways. This medication is usually an inhaled corticosteroid. Another type of controller medication is combination therapy. This is a combination of inhaled steroid, to decrease and prevent swelling inside the airways, plus a long-acting bronchodilator medication to relax the airways. A controller medication will not provide quick relief for asthma symptoms and should not be taken to relieve acute asthma symptoms.
  • Steroid burst is a course of oral steroids, usually prescribed for a few days when a patient is having an asthma exacerbation, to help relieve airway inflammation.
  • Asthma Action Plan details the prescribed asthma controller medication, relief mediations, triggers to avoid and when to step up therapy. Asthma action plans are provided at each clinic visit.

Learn how to use an asthma inhaler from our Breathing Institute experts.

All medications may have side effects. Notify your child's healthcare provider if side effects develop. It is very important to take the prescribed medications regularly and as instructed to manage asthma effectively.

Download an asthma action plan in English (.pdf) or Spanish (.pdf) to help guide your child's asthma care.

Things to remember about asthma:

  • Exercise: Children with asthma symptoms triggered by exercise should remember to treat themselves with their quick-relief medication (bronchodilator) 15 minutes prior to exercise. Children with asthma should not have to limit their activity in any way. If your child is having trouble with exercise, you should see a doctor to adjust the asthma care.
  • Tracking Medication Doses: It is important to keep track of how many doses of asthma medication remain in the device. For the medication devices that do not have a dose counter on them, mark the device with a piece of masking tape and keep track of how many doses are used.  Also check medication expiration dates!
  • Prevention of the Flu: It is important for all children with asthma to receive a flu vaccine every fall. The flu can make a child with asthma very sick because the virus attacks the lungs and can cause breathing problems, making asthma worse.  
  • Vacation Planning: It is important for a child with asthma to always have their quick relief medication available to them in case they start to have difficulty breathing, wheezing, or persistent coughing. When planning for a vacation, remember to check that you will have enough controller medication to last throughout the trip, and that quick-relief medication (example: Albuterol) is easily accessible during travel.  
  • School/Camp Information: It is important to share your child's asthma action plan with school and camp. This will help guide those caring for your child if he or she has problems with his/her asthma.

Tips for organizing your child's asthma care:

  • Provide school with an asthma action plan (.pdf) in case symptoms occur at school.
  • Place home copy of an asthma action plan in a visible place in the house where it can be easily read such as a refrigerator.
  • Store all asthma medications and devices in one place, such as a duffle-bag or plastic container. Make this storage container easily accessible for the child and parent.
  • Place handout for cleaning asthma devices in a commonly-used areas, such as on the refrigerator to help remind you about cleaning the devices on a regular basis.
  • Coordinate taking controller medications prior to teeth-brushing in the morning and at night to reduce the chance of forgetting to take the medicine and decrease the possibility of thrush in and around the mouth.

Why choose Children's Hospital Colorado for your child's asthma?

Our asthma program sees more children with asthma than any other hospital in Colorado. We provide comprehensive evaluation, asthma management, allergy testing and education.

Here are some asthma terms you may hear during a visit to Children's Colorado asthma program:

  • Asthma exacerbation – This refers to a period in time where asthma symptoms were occurring frequently during the day and night, and a quick relief medication was needed at least every four hours. Another name for this is an acute asthma attack.
  • Bronchospasm – Tightening or spasm of the muscles around the airways, which makes them narrower and more difficult to get air into and out of the lungs.
  • Inflammation – irritation, redness and swelling of the airways.
  • Peak Flow Meter Readings – A peak flow meter is a small device which indicates how well a child is able to force air out of the lungs Readings are specific to each child, and indicate how the child's asthma is on a day-to-day basis. Learn how to use a Peak Flow Meter.
  • Triggers – Anything that causes your child to have asthma symptoms.
  • Zones – This term refers to the patient's asthma action plan and consists of green, yellow and red zones which are categorized by symptoms and peak flow readings. This information helps your healthcare provider determine how bad your child's asthma is at that time.


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