Asthma in children

What is asthma in children?

Asthma is the most common lung condition in children. It affects around 1 in 11 children in the UK. It can appear at any age, but the symptoms often start during childhood.

How might asthma affect my child?

If your child has asthma, their airways are inflamed and more sensitive than usual. When airways are irritated, the body reacts in 3 ways:

  • the muscles around the airways tighten, making the airways narrower
  • the lining of the airways become inflamed and swollen, making the airways narrower
  • the airways may start to produce more mucus than normal, making the airways narrower

These reactions make it harder for air to get into and out of the lungs. This causes the symptoms of asthma:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness

When these symptoms flare up, people often call this an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can be brought on by a number of triggers, including things in the environment that make symptoms worse. Every child is different, but common triggers include:

  • allergies
  • irritants in the air, such as air pollution or tobacco smoke
  • colds or flu
  • hot or cold weather
  • exercise
  • strong emotions

At the moment there’s no cure for asthma, but with the right treatment it can usually be controlled easily. Most children will find their symptoms get better as they grow up.

Can asthma go away for good?

Sometimes, often in very young children, asthma symptoms might completely disappear as they grow up. However, it’s possible they may come back later in adult life. The important thing to remember is that with the right treatment, asthma symptoms can be controlled and most people with asthma can live a normal life.

Find out more about asthma triggers, and how to manage your child’s condition.

What causes asthma?

No one knows exactly what causes asthma. But research has found that your child is more likely to develop asthma if:

  • they have a family member with asthma
  • they have eczema or any allergies, or have family members with eczema or allergies
  • they have been exposed to cigarette smoke, especially before they were born

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

The symptoms of asthma are:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • a tight feeling in the chest - children may say their chest or tummy hurts

Your child may not have all these symptoms, and they probably won’t experience them all the time. You may notice that your child’s symptoms are worse at night, in the early morning and when they’re exposed to certain triggers.

If your child has severe asthma or if they’re not using their medication properly, they may have symptoms every day.

How is asthma diagnosed in children?

Diagnosing children with asthma can be difficult. There isn’t a single test to see if your child has asthma and the diagnosis may not be made immediately. Your doctor may recommend a trial of treatment, or a period of watchful waiting. During this time, you should monitor your child’s symptoms.

Diagnosing asthma in young children (under 5)

Your health care professional will:

  • ask about your child’s symptoms, their medical history and whether they or anyone else in the family has allergies or eczema
  • listen to your child’s chest to hear wheezing

Diagnosing asthma in children and young people aged 5 and over

Children aged 5 and older might be offered breathing tests. Your health care professional will still need to know about your child’s symptoms and medical history, but they might use one or more tests as well to get a better picture of how your child’s lungs are affected:

peak flow meter
Peak flow meter
  • peak expiratory flow - this measures how fast your child can breathe out using a peak flow meter
  • spirometry – this also measures how fast your child can breathe out but is a more detailed test. It can be used to see if your child’s breathing improves after they use an asthma inhaler to open the airways
  • fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) – this measures how inflamed the airways are

Your child might be given a trial of treatment. This means taking an asthma medication for 4 – 8 weeks before being reviewed by your health care professional to see if this has improved their symptoms. If their breathing is better after treatment, then it’s likely they have asthma.

Next: Exercised induced laryngeal obstruction (EILO) >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.