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What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic illness that makes breathing difficult. Times when your child has breathing problems are called asthma episodes.

Three things happen in asthma episodes that make it hard for your child to breathe:

1) airways become red and swollen

2) muscles around the airways tighten

3) mucus clogs the airways.

Your child may have asthma symptoms: wheeze (make a whistling sound), cough, or shortness of breath as he/she works to move air in and out of their lungs.

Asthma episodes usually start gradually and get worse over a few hours or days and can happen anytime and anywhere.

What causes an asthma episode?

Triggers are substances or situations that start an asthma episode. Your child may have more than one trigger. Identifying and avoiding your child’s asthma triggers helps to manage his/her asthma.

  • Allergies – house dust mites, pollens, animal dander, cockroaches, mold, foods
  • Irritants – cigarette smoke (even the smell of smoke in clothing or furniture), wood smoke, cleaning odors, perfumes, kerosene heaters, air pollution.
  • Weather Changes – hot to cold, dry to wet
  • Infections - a cold or virus, sinus infections.
  • Exercise – active play or exercise (warm-up exercises and using a reliever medicine before exercise prevents problems)
  • Stress and Emotion – crying, laughing, school and home stresses

Early Warning Signs:

Your child will show early warning signs at the very beginning of an asthma episode. Since episodes begin slowly, you can prevent more severe symptoms by treating your child’s asthma when you see these signs. Your child may have some of these more common early warning signs:

  • Headache
  • Feeling tired/weak
  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Coughing
  • Itchy/watery eyes
  • Feeling tired/grumpy
  • Drop in peak flow readings
  • Runny/stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Getting out of breath easily
  • Waking up in the night coughing

Asthma Medicines:

Two types of medicines are used to treat asthma: Controllers and Relievers. Your child will need both types of medicine to get well and stay well.

  1. Controllers: Keep asthma under control by preventing symptoms. Must be taken every day.
    (Examples: Flovent®, Pulmicort®, Singulair®, Advair®, Asmanex®, Symbicort®
  2. Relievers: Relieve asthma symptoms quickly. Taken only when early warning signs or symptoms are present.
    (Examples: Albuterol, Proventil®, Ventolin®, Xopenex®, ProAir®

How to manage your child's asthma:

  1. Give your child their controller medicine everyday to keep their asthma under control.
  2. Avoid asthma triggers. (See Healthy Fact #0180 How to Avoid Asthma Triggers)
  3. Always use a spacer with their inhaler and mouthpiece or mask with their nebulizer.
  4. Give your child their reliever medicine when you start to see early warning signs or other asthma symptoms as directed by your child’s doctor.

Call your child's doctor if:

  • The reliever medicine does not help your child.
  • The asthma episode gets worse after receiving their reliever medicine.
  • The reliever medicine is needed more than every 4 hours or is needed every 4 hours for more than 2 days

Tell the doctor what medicines you have given your child and write down the doctor's instructions.

Call 911 if:

  • Your child cannot complete a sentence without gasping for air or has a weak cry.
  • Your child’s fingertips or lips are blue or gray in color
  • Your child does not “act right” or seems confused.


  • Bring asthma medicines, spacer, peak flow meter, and calendar to each appointment or emergency room visit.
  • Your child may need a flu shot in the fall – Talk to your child’s doctor.
  • Tell your child’s teacher, school nurse, and day care provider about your child’s asthma.
  • See your child’s doctor for well asthma visits at least twice a year.
  • Make sure your child always has their reliever medicine with a spacer at all times.

Disclaimer:This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.

Reviewed: 03/08

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