Asthma Attacks in Children

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Asthma is one of the most common chronic childhood illnesses, affecting nearly 9 million kids under the age of 18 in the United States. Repeated asthma attacks not only interfere with a child's school and play activities, but they can result in trips to the ER when breathing problems get out of control.

Tips on Managing Your Child's Asthma

Managing a child's asthma so that it's well-controlled may mean fewer trips to the ER.

These tips can help you control your child's asthma so that it doesn't interfere with his or her daily activities:

Follow the 'Asthma Action Plan'. The doctor should provide a written action plan that includes information on the child's daily treatment, as well as what asthma symptoms to be on the lookout for and what to do when the child has an asthma attack

Include the child. Make sure he or she understands what the asthma action plan is and why it's important to follow it. Help the child understand that not following the plan could result in a flare-up of asthma symptoms and emergency care.

Know the signs of an asthma attack. Coughing, clearing of the throat, breathing difficulties and chest tightness are all signs of an asthma attack in kids. However, hyperactivity, fatigue and sleep disturbances are too. Not every flare-up is the same and your child may react differently than you do (if you also have asthma).

Children vary among each other too in their symptoms. For instance, while some children cough at night, others cough after exercise. Become familiar with your child's asthma, and note what he or she is doing just before an attack. Using a peak flow meter at home can help determine whether a flare-up is imminent.

The doctor can provide information on monitoring the range of readings.

Avoid common asthma triggers. These include dust, pets, mold, cold air, smoke, physical activity, and infections.

Make sure your child has rescue medications handy. Be sure to inform all school administrators, teachers, coaches, friends, and babysitters of the signs of an asthma attack, the child's asthma action plan, and the proper use of rescue medications. Discuss with your child's school their requirements regarding policies on carrying and self-administering asthma inhalers at school. 

Teach your child the importance controller medications. Taking long-term controller asthma medications is important for preventing asthma attacks -- so it's critical a child take his daily medications, even if he is not experiencing any asthma symptoms. These medications help decrease the body's response to asthma triggers. In addition, be sure that all caretakers are also well informed of the child's medications and their asthma action plan as it pertains to controller medications.

Establish a trusting relationship with your child's doctor. Call him or her when symptoms of a flare-up appear. The doctor can help keep the symptoms from becoming worse and may be able to help your child avoid a trip to the hospital.

Symptoms of an Emergency Asthma Attack

While the goal is to avoid trips to the ER, it's also important to find out from the doctor when emergency care is necessary. The doctor should include specific instructions and guidelines, such as peak flow meter readings in the child's asthma action plan. Once your child is old enough to understand the disease, teach him or her to recognize these symptoms as well. A child who is suffering from any of the following asthma symptoms needs emergency medical help:

  • Repeated use of rescue medications without relief of symptoms
  • Difficulty speaking or walking
  • Trouble breathing -- child hunched over or struggling to breath
  • Visible retractions when the child breathes (you're able to see the space between the child's ribs and/or at the base of the neck retract as he inhales)
  • Stops playing and does not restart activity
  • Bluish or gray lips and/or fingernails

Steps to Take in an Emergency Asthma Attack

Even when asthma is well-managed, there are times when a trip to the hospital may be unavoidable. Planning ahead for such an emergency can be helpful.

  • Know where the nearest emergency room is and find out if there is a pediatric ER. List the address and phone number of the hospital's ER in the child's action plan.
  • Should you need to go to the ER, take along a copy of the child's asthma action plan, or a note with the names and dosages of any medications the child is currently taking.
  • Arrange for a family member or friend to babysit other children in an emergency. But even if no one is available, don't put off going to the ER.


American Lung Association. The Basics for Parents

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Childhood Asthma.