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Signs Your Child May Have Asthma

By Matthew M. Dugan, MD | Pediatrics

In childhood asthma, the lungs and airways become easily inflamed when exposed to certain triggers. Inflammation leads to swelling and production of mucus. Triggers vary from child to child but generally include:

  • Viral infections such as the common cold
  • Exposure to air pollutants, such as tobacco smoke
  • Allergies to dust mites, pet dander, pollen or mold
  • Physical activity
  • Weather changes or cold air
  • Feeding, in infants

Sometimes, asthma symptoms occur with no apparent triggers.

Childhood asthma can interfere with play, sports, school and sleep. In some children, unmanaged asthma can cause dangerous asthma attacks that require emergency treatment and possibly permanent decline in lung function.  Most children experience symptoms by age five. Childhood asthma isn’t a different disease from asthma in adults, but children face unique challenges. The condition is a leading cause of emergency department visits, hospitalizations and missed school days.  Unfortunately, childhood asthma can’t be cured, and symptoms can continue into adulthood. But with the right treatment, you and your child can keep symptoms under control and prevent damage to growing lungs.

Signs and Symptoms signs your child may have asthma

  • Frequent coughing that worsens when your child has a viral infection, occurs while your child is asleep or is triggered by exercise or cold air
  • A whistling or wheezing sound when breathing out; not all children with asthma wheeze so be on the look-out for other signs.
  • Shortness of breath; trouble breathing that hampers play
  • Chest congestion or tightness
  • Trouble sleeping due to shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • Delayed recovery or bronchitis after a respiratory infection
  • Fatigue, which can be due to poor sleep


  • Limit exposure to asthma triggers. Help your child avoid the allergens and irritants that trigger asthma symptoms.
  • Don’t allow smoking around your child. Exposure to tobacco smoke during infancy is a strong risk factor for childhood asthma, as well as a common trigger of asthma attacks.
  • Encourage your child to be active. As long as your child’s asthma is well-controlled, regular physical activity can help the lungs to work more efficiently.
  • Help your child maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can worsen asthma symptoms, and it puts your child at risk of other health problems.
  • Keep heartburn under control. Acid reflux or severe heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) might worsen your child’s asthma symptoms. He or she might need over-the-counter or prescription medications to control acid reflux.

When to see a doctor

Take your child to see the doctor if you suspect he or she has asthma. Early treatment will help control symptoms and possibly prevent asthma attacks. There is no specific test for asthma. Pulmonary function tests (PFTs), often used to confirm a diagnosis of asthma, are very hard to do on children less than 6 years old.  They measure how well your child can move air in and out of his or her lungs.  To help your pediatrician make a correct diagnosis, be prepared with information such as family history of asthma or allergies, your child’s overall behavior, breathing patterns and his or her responses to foods or possible allergy triggers.  The doctor may use a four to six week trial of asthma medicines to see if they make a difference in your child’s symptoms.

Asthma changes over time.  If your child is diagnosed with asthma, it is important to check in regularly with your pediatrician.  It is also recommended to create an asthma plan that can help you and other caregivers monitor symptoms and know what to do if an asthma attack occurs.  By taking the proper precautions, you can help your child breathe easier and be healthier.

Sources: American Thoracic Society; Center for Disease Control