Children's Hospital Colorado

Asthma Attack

  • Your child is having an asthma attack
  • Use this guide only if a doctor has told you your child has asthma

Symptoms of Asthma

  • Symptoms of an asthma attack are wheezing, a cough, tight chest, and trouble breathing.
  • Wheezing is the classic symptom. Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling or purring sound.  You can hear it best when your child is breathing out.
  • The diagnosis of asthma requires attacks of wheezing that recur. The diagnosis is rarely made before 1 year of age.

Causes (Triggers) of Asthma Attacks

  • Infections that affect breathing (like colds or the flu)
  • Pollens (trees, grass and weeds)
  • Animals (like cats or rabbits)
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Irritants (such as smog, car exhaust, menthol vapors, barns, dirty basement)
  • Food Allergy (Serious). Asthma attacks caused by food allergy can be life-threatening (anaphylaxis). Examples are nuts or fish.

Asthma Attack Scale

  • Mild: No Shortness of Breath (SOB) at rest. Mild SOB with walking. Can talk normally. Speaks in sentences. Can lay down flat. Wheezes not heard or mild. (Green Zone: Peak Flow Rate 80-100% of normal rate)
  • Moderate: SOB at rest. Speaks in phrases. Wants to sit (can't lay down flat). Wheezing can be heard. Retractions are present (ribs pull in with each breath). (Yellow Zone: Peak Flow Rate 50-80% of normal rate)
  • Severe: Severe SOB at rest. Speaks in single words. Struggling to breathe. Wheezing may be loud. Rarely, wheezing is absent due to poor air movement. Retractions may be severe. (Red Zone: Peak Flow Rate less than 50% of normal rate)
  • Peak Flow Meter: A peak flow meter measures Peak Flow Rates (PFR). It tells us how well a person can move air out of the lungs. A PFR can be used in children 6 years and older.

Call 911 Now

  • Wheezing and life-threatening allergic reaction to similar substance in the past
  • Starts to wheeze suddenly after bee sting, taking a new medicine, or allergic food
  • Severe trouble breathing (struggling for each breath, can barely speak or cry)
  • Passed out
  • Lips or face are bluish when not coughing
  • You think your child has a life-threatening emergency

Go to ER Now

  • Looks like he did when hospitalized before with asthma
  • Trouble breathing not gone 20 minutes after neb or inhaler
  • Peak flow rate less than 50% of normal rate (Red Zone)

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Lips or face have turned bluish during coughing
  • Ribs are pulling in with each breath (retractions)
  • Peak flow rate 50-80% of normal rate after using neb or inhaler (Yellow Zone)
  • Wheezing not gone 20 minutes after using neb or inhaler
  • Nonstop coughing not improved after using neb or inhaler
  • Severe chest pain
  • Need to use asthma medicine (neb or inhaler) more often than every 4 hours
  • Fever over 104° F (40° C)
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Mild wheezing lasts over 24 hours on neb or inhaler treatments
  • Sinus pain (not just congestion)
  • Fever lasts more than 3 days
  • Fever returns after gone for more than 24 hours
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Don't have written asthma action plan from your doctor
  • Use an inhaler, but don't have a spacer
  • Miss more than 1 day of school per month for asthma
  • Asthma limits exercise or sports
  • Asthma attacks wake child up from sleep
  • Use more than 1 inhaler per month
  • No asthma check-up in over 1 year
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Mild asthma attack

Care Advice for Asthma Attack

  1. What You Should Know About Asthma:
    • Over 10% of children have asthma.
    • Your child's asthma can flare up at any time.
    • When you are away from your home, always take your child's medicines with you.
    • The sooner you start treatment, the faster your child will feel better.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Asthma Quick-Relief Medicine:
    • Your child's quick-relief (rescue) medicine is albuterol or xopenex.
    • Start it at the first sign of any wheezing, shortness of breath or hard coughing.
    • Give by inhaler with a spacer (2 puffs each time) or use a neb machine.
    • Repeat it every 4 hours if your child is having any asthma symptoms.
    • Never give it more often than 4 hours without talking with your child's doctor.
    • Coughing. The best "cough med" for a child with asthma is always the asthma medicine. (Caution: don't use cough suppressants. If over 6 years old, cough drops may help a tickly cough.)
    • Caution: If the inhaler hasn't been used in over 7 days, prime it. Test spray it twice into the air before using it for treatment. Also, do this if it is new.
    • Use the medicine until your child has not wheezed or coughed for 48 hours.
    • Spacer. Always use inhalers with a spacer. It will get twice the amount of medicine into the lungs.
  3. Asthma Controller Medicine:
    • Your child may have been told to use a controller drug. An example is an inhaled steroid.
    • During asthma attacks, keep giving this medicine to your child as ordered.
  4. Allergy Medicine for Hay Fever:
    • For signs of nasal allergies (hay fever), it's okay to give allergy medicine. Reason: Poor control of nasal allergies makes asthma worse.
  5. Fluids - Offer More:
    • Try to get your child to drink lots of fluids.
    • Goal: Keep your child well hydrated.
    • Reason: It will loosen up any phlegm in the lungs. Then it's easier to cough up.
  6. Humidifier:
    • If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. Reason: Dry air makes coughs worse.
  7. Avoid Tobacco Smoke:
    • Tobacco smoke makes asthma much worse.
    • Don't let anyone smoke around your child.
  8. Avoid or Remove Triggers:
    • Shower to remove pollens or other allergens from the body and hair.
    • Avoid known causes of asthma attacks (such as smoke or cats).
    • Do not take part in sports during the attack.
  9. What to Expect:
    • If treatment is started early, most asthma attacks are quickly brought under control.
    • All wheezing should be gone by 5 days.
  10. Inhaler With a Spacer: How to Use
    • Step 1. Shake the inhaler well. Then attach it to the spacer (holding chamber).
    • Step 2. Breathe out completely and empty the lungs.
    • Step 3. Place the mouthpiece of the spacer in the mouth.
    • Step 4. Press down on the inhaler. This will put one puff of the medicine in the spacer.
    • Step 5. Breathe in slowly for 5 seconds until the lungs are full.
    • Step 6. Hold a deep breath for 10 seconds. Allow the medicine to work deep in the lungs.
    • If your doctor has ordered 2 or more puffs, wait 1 minute. Then repeat steps 2-6.
  11. Metered Dose Inhaler (MDI): How to Use Without a Spacer
    • Step 1. Shake the inhaler well.
    • Step 2. Hold the inhaler about 1-2 inches (2-5 cm) in front of the mouth.
    • Step 3. Breathe out completely and empty the lungs.
    • Step 4. Press down on the inhaler to release a puff. Do this just as your child starts to breathe in.
    • Step 5. Breathe in slowly for 5 seconds until the lungs are full.
    • Step 6. Hold a deep breath for 10 seconds. Allow the medicine to work deep in the lungs.
    • If your doctor has ordered 2 or more puffs, wait 1 minute. Then repeat steps 2-6.
    • Ask your doctor for a spacer. It will help send more medicine into the lungs.
  12. Home Nebulizer: How to Use:
    • A nebulizer machine changes a liquid medicine (med) into a fine mist. The fine mist can carry the med deep into the lungs. This is called a nebulizer (neb) treatment.
    • Step 1. Prepare the medicine. First, wash your hands with soap and water. For pre-mixed single dose vials, just add one vial to the neb holding cup. For multi-dose vials, you need to do the mixing. First, add the correct amount of normal saline to the neb cup. Then carefully measure and add the correct amount of medicine to the saline.
    • Step 2. Connect the nebulizer to the air compressor tubing. The air compressor is run by electricity. Portable ones run on a battery. Compressors make the jet of air that turns the medicine into a fine mist.
    • Step 3. Turn on the air compressor. It will start making the fine mist that your child needs.
    • Step 4 for an Older Child. Place the mouthpiece between your child's teeth and seal with the lips. Ask your child to breathe slowly and deeply. Ask your child to hold a deep breath for 10 seconds once a minute.
    • Step 4 for a Younger Child. If your child refuses the mouthpiece, use a face mask. It should cover the nose and mouth. It should fit snugly.
    • Step 5. Continue the treatment until the med is gone. If the med sticks to the side of the cup, shake it a little. An average neb treatment takes 10 minutes.
    • Step 6. After each treatment, take the nebulizer apart. Rinse and clean it as directed. Reason: It can't produce mist if it becomes clogged up.
    • Caution: Closely follow your doctor's instructions. Use the exact amount of med your doctor ordered. Don't give a neb treatment more often than every 4 hours.
  13. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Trouble breathing occurs
    • Asthma quick-relief medicine (neb or inhaler) is needed more than every 4 hours
    • Wheezing lasts over 24 hours
    • You think your child needs to be seen
    • Your child becomes worse

Care Advice for Asthma Attack

How to Use a Dry Powder Inhaler

Dry powder inhalers require a different inhaling technique than regular metered dose inhalers (MDI). To use a dry powder inhaler, it is important to close your mouth tightly around the mouthpiece of the inhaler and to inhale rapidly. Here are the steps:

  • STEP 1 - Remove the cap and follow manufacturer's instructions to load a dose of medicine.
  • STEP 2 - Breathe out completely.
  • STEP 3 - Put the mouthpiece of the inhaler in the mouth.
  • STEP 4 - Breathe in quickly and deeply.
  • STEP 5 - Hold your breath for ten seconds to allow the medicine to reach deeply into your lungs.
  • If your doctor has prescribed two or more inhalations, wait 1 minute and then repeat steps 2-5.
How to Use a MDI

A metered dose inhaler (MDI) is a device used to deliver asthma medication directly to the lungs. In order to ensure effective administration of the medicine, the following steps should be performed.

  • STEP 1 - Remove the cap and shake the inhaler.
  • STEP 2 - Hold the inhaler about 1-2 inches in front of the mouth. Breathe out - completely.
  • STEP 3 - Press down on the inhaler to release the medicine as you start to breathe in slowly.
  • STEP 4 - Breathe in slowly for three to five seconds.
  • STEP 5 - Hold your breath for ten seconds to allow the medicine to reach deeply into your lungs.
  • If your doctor has prescribed two puffs, wait 1 minute and then repeat steps 2-5.
How to Use a MDI with Spacer

A spacer (or holding chamber) can be useful for all patients. A spacer makes it easier to correctly inhale the asthma medication out of the metered dose inhaler (MDI). A spacer is especially useful in younger children and older adults.

  • STEP 1 - Shake the inhaler and then attach it to the spacer (holding chamber).
  • STEP 2 - Breathe out completely.
  • STEP 3 - Place the mouthpiece of the spacer in your mouth.
  • STEP 4 - Press down on the inhaler. This will put one puff of the medicine in the holding chamber or spacer.
  • STEP 5 - Breathe in slowly for 5 seconds.
  • STEP 6 - Hold your breath for 10 seconds and then exhale.
  • If your doctor has prescribed two or more puffs, wait 1 minute between each puff and then repeat steps 2-6.

Disclaimer

The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment.

  • Not a Substitute - The information and materials in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker should not be used as a substitute for the care and knowledge that your physician can provide to you.
  • Supplement - The information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker are meant to supplement the information that you obtain from your physician. If there is a disagreement between the information presented herein and what your physician has told you -- it is more likely that your physician is correct. He or she has the benefit of knowing your child's medical problems.
  • Limitations - You should recognize that the information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker have the following limitations, in comparison to being examined by your own physician:
    • You can have a conversation with your child's doctor.
    • Your child's doctor can perform a physical examination and any necessary tests.
    • Your child could have an underlying medical problem that requires a physician to detect.
    • If your child is taking medications, they could influence how he experiences various symptoms.

If you think that your child is having a medical emergency, call 911 or the number for the local emergency ambulance service NOW!

And when in doubt, call your child's doctor NOW or go to the closest emergency department.

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