Kids and Asthma: What You Should Know

While not curable, asthma can be carefully managed to let children breathe easier.
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Spring flowers can take your breath away, and not just because their beauty is such a welcome break from winter landscapes. For children with asthma, the high pollen counts that come with spring can spell breathing trouble.  

During an asthma attack, the airways swell, produce excess mucus and narrow, limiting the amount of air that gets into the lungs. Asthma is a chronic condition, and attacks can vary from mild to severe enough that they require immediate medical attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pediatric asthma is a leading cause of emergency room visits and absences from school.

Allergic reactions to environmental triggers, such as pollen or  pet dander, can cause asthma attacks, as can the time of year. “The tree pollen season peaks right around the first week of May in Bergen County,” says Jennifer Sherman, D.O., an allergist at Summit Medical Group in Fair Lawn.“Grass pollinates in late spring, early summer.” Exposure to smoke and cold air also can trigger attacks, as can physical expressions of emotion (like crying, laughing or yelling).

Many children with asthma experience symptoms when they’re physically active, a condition called exercise-induced bronchospasm. Your child’s doctor can help devise an action plan that makes participating in sports safe, for example by using an inhaler before physical activity. Exercise actually can strengthen airway muscles, improving their function. 

The exact cause of pediatric asthma is unknown, but research suggests interplay between the immune system and early exposure to environmental irritants. Genetics also may play a role. 

Though there’s no known cure for asthma, most serious effects are avoidable with proper treatment. Your pediatrician can help you identify and avoid triggers, and develop an action plan to share with school personnel. Medications can help prevent asthma attacks by reducing inflammation in the airways, and inhalers can be used to relax the muscles around the airways during an attack.

“Children who suffer despite these measures and children who develop allergy-induced asthma should be considered for allergy shots (immunotherapy),” says Neil Minikes, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at Allergy and Asthma Center of Northern New Jersey in Closter. “This can not only alleviate symptoms, but also result in lifelong improvement after the shots are discontinued.” 

Common Triggers

Asthma symptoms can present themselves without any obvious cause, but often asthma is aggravated by common triggers like these:

  • Allergens, including pet hair and dander, dust mites, mold and pollen
  • Infections, including a cold or the flu
  • Weather changes, especially colder temps
  • Pollutants like cigarette smoke and general air pollution
  • Physical and emotional exertion, including exercise, strong emotions and stress

Common Symptoms

Consult your child’s pediatrician if you suspect asthma. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Frequent cough
  • Wheezing while breathing
  • Trouble breathing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing
  • Chest pain, tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor sleep
  • Breathing trouble that limits play

Emergency Symptoms

Since asthma affects breathing, it can be deadly in a worst-case scenario. When in doubt, administer rescue medication previously prescribed and go to the hospital. Definitely go to the emergency room if your child is: 

  • So out of breath he/she can’t finish a  sentence
  • Wheezing nonstop
  • Breathing with the help of stomach muscles
  • Flaring nostrils while breathing
  • Exhibiting changes in facial color, like bluish lips
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