SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- If your child has an asthma attack and breathing is difficult, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
- Take your child to the doctor if you are concerned about any breathing problems they have.
- If your child has asthma, it is important to know the signs of an asthma attack or asthma emergency and know how to administer asthma first aid.
- Make sure your doctor completes an asthma action plan for your child and it is updated at least once per year.
- Understand your child’s asthma triggers to reduce the risk of an asthma attack.
- Asthma is one of the most common reasons that children visit a doctor or go to hospital.
What is asthma?
It causes the muscles in the airways to tighten, and the lining of the airway to become swollen and inflamed, producing sticky mucus. These changes cause the airways to become narrow, making it difficult to breathe, and can lead to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.
Asthma is one of the most common reasons that children visit doctors, miss days at school or are admitted to hospital. In fact, it is estimated that around one in 10 Australian children have asthma. If your child’s , they should be able to lead a healthy, active life.
Causes of asthma in children
The reason some children develop asthma is not fully understood, but risk factors include:
- family members with asthma, or – potential genetic factors
- sensitising airborne particles
- having a mother who .
What you need to know about your child’s asthma
There are many things to think about and plan for when your child has asthma. It is important to learn as much as you can about the condition. Your doctor and pharmacist are there to help you. Talk to them about any concerns you may have about your child’s asthma.
To manage your child’s asthma effectively, it is important to know:
- the pattern of their asthma
- their asthma symptoms
- their – what they do and how to help your child take them properly
- what to do if they have an asthma attack – know and follow .
Make sure you have an updated written asthma action plan and understand how to use it.
Asthma patterns in children
Every child’s asthma is different. Some children have mild, occasional episodes of asthma or only show symptoms after , or when they have a . Some experience daily symptoms, while others have symptoms continuously, which limit their level of activity.
Triggers for asthma in children
- exposure to
- airway infections such as the , especially during infancy
- allergy triggers, such as , animals, or
- weather conditions, such as cold air
Triggers for asthma vary among children, and symptoms can be delayed after exposure to the trigger. This can make diagnosis difficult.
Your child may have several asthma triggers and they may vary from those of another child. Find out what triggers your child’s asthma so that you can avoid asthma triggers where possible.
Symptoms of asthma in children
Common asthma symptoms include:
- chest tightness or pain (often described by young children as a ‘sore tummy’)
- shortness of breath
- difficulty breathing
- wheezing – whistling noise when breathing
- coughing (particularly at night).
Your child may have all of these symptoms or just a few. Symptoms are often worse at night, in the early morning, during exercise or due to other triggers.
Diagnosis of asthma in children
- the wheezing happens more than once – with or without an illness
- constant coughing or bouts of coughing become worse at night
- you are concerned about any breathing problems in your child.
Keep a diary of your child’s symptoms
Keep a diary of symptoms to discuss with your doctor. The diary could include:
- a video or audio recording of the wheezing – you could use your mobile phone
- when the symptoms occur – such as during the day or worse at night
- how bad the symptoms are and how often they happen
- how long the symptoms remain and whether they change with time
- whether the symptoms are worse after exercise, playing or after an infection (colds or flu)
- whether the symptoms are worse after exposure to animals, pollens or mould.
What to expect when you visit the doctor
Your doctor may ask whether you have any family history of asthma, eczema or hay fever.
In children, doctors assess the severity of the asthma based on the pattern and frequency of the symptoms.
It is recommended that a paediatrician (specialist children’s doctor) or paediatric respiratory specialist diagnose and manage asthma in infants under 12 months. If your infant is wheezing your doctor should refer to you one of these specialists.
Everyday treatment for asthma in children
The main aims of day-to-day asthma treatment are to:
- keep symptoms under control
- prevent flare-ups or ‘attacks’
- keep lungs as healthy as possible
- stop asthma from interfering with school or play
- help your child enjoy a full and active life.
Your doctor will help you to develop a plan to manage your child’s asthma which will include an asthma action plan (a quick reference of instructions for what to do if your child’s condition changes), and will prescribe the correct medication to help you do so.
- preventers – that slowly make the airways less sensitive to triggers by reducing swelling and mucus inside the airways. This medication is taken daily. (Depending on the trigger of the asthma symptoms in your child, some children may only need preventer medication during certain seasons – for example during pollen season or during winter when they pick up a cold or flu. Others may need preventers all year round)
- relievers – that act quickly to relieve symptoms by relaxing the tight muscles around the airways. This medication is used during an asthma attack.
Best medical practice is to give only the smallest doses of medication required to keep your child’s asthma symptoms under control. Your doctor will tell you how much this is. Never reduce the dose of medication without speaking with your doctor.
There are many different types of asthma medication, mostly in the form of inhalers (or puffers). has more information about your asthma medication.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about practical ideas for encouraging your child to take their asthma medications.
Spacers and asthma medication
For all people with asthma, it is recommended that a spacer device is used when asthma medication is delivered via a puffer (metered dose inhaler). A spacer is a specially designed container that attaches to a puffer and has its own mouthpiece to breathe through.
Using a spacer helps the medication to go where it is supposed to – into the small airways in the lungs – rather than ending up coating your child’s mouth, tongue and throat. It is much more effective than using a puffer on its own. Using a spacer with a puffer can reduce or prevent side effects from inhaled medication.
Babies and young children may need a spacer with a special face mask attached to inhale asthma medicines effectively. These fit tightly around your child’s mouth and nose to make sure none of the medicine leaks out. Talk to your pharmacist for advice and to have your technique checked.
Watch this Asthma Australia video which shows you how to use a spacer with a face mask.
Side effects of asthma medication
If you are worried about possible side effects from asthma medication, speak to your doctor. Do not stop or reduce doses of medication for your child without speaking with your doctor.
Common side effects from inhaled asthma medication:
- hoarse voice
- sore mouth and throat
- fungal throat infections.
Using a spacer reduces the risk of these side effects. as does rinsing the mouth with water (and gargling, and spitting it out) after using an inhaler.
- fast heart beat.
Asthma emergencies in children
Have a copy of your child’s asthma action plan pinned up somewhere easy to access at home, and send a copy to anyone who cares for your child, including their school, kinder, childcare service, family members and friends. You may like to take a photo of their asthma action plan so you always have a copy with you.
Asthma action plans for children
Your child’s asthma action plan will tell you:
- how to recognise when your child’s asthma is getting worse or an ‘attack’ is developing, and the steps you should take to manage it
- symptoms that are serious, indicating a need for urgent medical help (with emergency information on what to do if your child has an asthma attack)
- your child’s asthma triggers.
Make sure you understand and can follow the asthma action plan from your doctor.
Symptoms of asthma emergencies in children
The signs of an asthma emergency include when the child:
- finds it very difficult to breathe or is not breathing
- is unable to speak comfortably or complete sentences without losing breath
- has lips turn blue
- has symptoms that get worse very quickly
- has ‘tugging in’ of the skin between ribs or at the base of the neck
- is getting little or no relief from their reliever inhaler, or their reliever inhaler is not available.
Treatment for asthma emergencies in children
An asthma attack can quickly become an asthma emergency, but if you take quick action, you can reduce the risk of this happening. So, if the symptoms of an asthma attack appear, follow your child’s asthma action plan.
- Sit the child upright.
- Give 4 puffs of reliever medication (one at a time), taking 4 breaths for each puff. Use a spacer and mask if one is available.
- Wait 4 minutes – if the child still cannot breathe normally, give 4 more puffs.
- Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. Tell the operator that a child is having an asthma emergency.
- Continue to give 4 separate puffs of reliever medication, taking 4 breaths for each puff, every 4 minutes until the ambulance arrives.
Asthma information for childcare, kinder or school
- Tell them that your child has asthma (even if it is mild or occasional).
- Provide them with a copy of your child’s asthma action plan, including emergency contact details. Make sure you provide an updated plan every year, or if your child’s medication changes. The school or childcare centre will require this for enrolment.
- Show staff members how to use the medication devices, such as spacers and puffers.
- Make sure your child has an up-to-date supply of medication and a spacer at the centre or school.
- Notify staff if your child’s asthma changes.
- Tell the staff about any concerns you may have.
Where to get help
- In an emergency, always call triple zero (000)
- Emergency department of your nearest hospital
- Tel. – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- – for after-hours home doctor visits (bulk billed) Tel. 13 SICK ()
- Tel. 1800 ASTHMA ()
- The has produced a number of videos to help you better understand and manage your child's asthma