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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Overview of asthma in children

Mō te mate huangō ki ngā tamariki


Call 111 and ask for an ambulance if your child:

Illustration showing an asthmatic airway with an inflamed and thickened wall and a asthmatic airway during an asthma attack with an inflamed wall and tightened muscles.When you have asthma, the small airways in your lungs are sensitive. This causes inflammation, which causes the airways to partially close up, swell inside and make more mucus (sputum or phlegm) than usual. This makes it hard to breathe in and even harder to breathe out.

Asthma is common in New Zealand and it can start at any age. We do not know the exact cause of asthma. But it's associated with allergies and it runs in families.

Symptoms of asthma may be triggered by something in the environment or something that you do.

Colds and flu (viral infections) are the most common triggers for asthma in children. Other common triggers include:

Some children only get a wheeze when they have a cough or cold caused by a virus. This is called viral wheeze. If your child has viral wheeze, it doesn't usually mean they have asthma.

Symptoms of asthma

Children with asthma may have:

Diagnosing asthma

Usually children under the age of 1 year aren't diagnosed with asthma because many of the symptoms (wheeze, cough, shortness of breath) are caused by viruses in this age group. Most children under 1 with these symptoms do not go on to have asthma.

Asthma can be difficult to diagnose especially in young children as the symptoms can be caused by other conditions.

Your doctor will ask about the pattern of symptoms you've noticed such as if they come and go and if they seem to be triggered by certain things. They will also want to know if your child or a close family member has a history of hay fever, eczema or asthma.

Your doctor will listen to your child's chest and check their height and weight to make sure they're growing normally. Your doctor may also suggest:

Many children will not need any tests to diagnose asthma. A chest X-ray may be helpful to check for other causes of cough.

In children over 7 years a spirometry test maybe used. This involves them breathing into a machine that measures how the lungs are working.

Treating asthma

Your child may be given an inhaler (puffer) to treat their asthma. The type of inhaler depends on your child's age and how bad their asthma is. See Asthma medications for children for more details.

You can also do a number of things to help your child's asthma detailed on the Helping my child with asthma page.

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On the next page: Helping your child with asthma

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2021.

Page reference: 394319

Review key: HIASC-12638