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Asthma fact sheet

Asthma

What is asthma?

A child with asthma has airways (breathing tubes) which are more sensitive than normal. When an asthmatic child is exposed to certain triggers, such as a cold or cigarette smoke, their airways overreact and become narrow and inflamed, making it hard to breathe. This is called an episode of asthma, asthma flare up or asthma attack.

The narrowing is caused by tightening of the muscles in the walls of the airways. The inflammation (redness and swelling) occurs in the lining of the airways. Extra mucous (secretions) is also produced in the airways.

Children whose asthma is well controlled with the right medication can lead normal active lives.

Signs and symptoms

  • Wheezing (a high pitched raspy sound or whistle when breathing out).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Coughing – cough may occur especially at night or early in the morning or with exercise.

Symptoms vary between children and between attacks.

Severe, life-threatening attacks are always possible.

What causes it?

The causes of asthma are not fully understood. It tends to run in families and some people who have asthma are also prone to allergic conditions including eczema and hay fever.

There is evidence that exposure to cigarette smoke during pregnancy and early childhood increases the risk of a child developing asthma.

What is a trigger?

A trigger is something that brings on an asthma attack. The most common trigger in children is a cold or chest infection. Other common triggers are smoke (cigarette or fire), animals, dust, pollen, moulds, activity and exercise, changes in temperature and emotions (such as stress or laughter).

What is the treatment?

The best way of controlling asthma is through medication. Medications are usually inhaled (breathed in) so it goes straight into the lungs where it is needed. Your child’s doctor will tell you what medications are best. It is important that all asthma medications are only taken only as directed by your child’s doctor.

Relievers e.g. Ventolin, Asmol, Bricanyl

  • Relieve asthma symptoms by quickly opening airways so it is easier to breathe.
  • Work very quickly (in about four minutes) and last up to four hours.
  • Should be used when your child has symptoms or, if prescribed by a doctor, before exercise/activity.
  • Should not be used ‘just in case’. Using a reliever too often is not effective in controlling asthma.
  • Can be purchased from a pharmacy/chemist without a prescription if you run out.

Preventers e.g. Pulmicort, Flixotide, Singulair

  • Prevent asthma attacks by reducing the amount of swelling and mucus in the airways.
  • Take a few weeks to work.
  • Must be taken every day even if your child feels well.
  • Your child should rinse their mouth thoroughly after use (as can cause oral thrush).

Steroids

  • May be needed when your child is sick with asthma, depending on their symptoms.
  • Your child’s doctor will decide if steroids are needed (only available on prescription).

How do I use a puffer?

Children should always use a spacer with puffer medication. A spacer is a cylinder-shaped device that reduces the amount of medicine that lands in the mouth and lets more go down into the lungs. For more information, see the fact sheet on puffers and spacers.

Care at home

  • Make sure your child knows how to take their medication and always has it with them.
  • Your child’s doctor will prepare an Action Plan to help you manage asthma at home.
  • See a doctor if your child needs reliever medication more than every three hours. Give your child the reliever and follow the Action Plan on your way to the doctor.
  • Keep your child’s Action Plan in a safe place so you can find it easily and quickly.
  • Share your child’s Action Plan with anyone who cares for your child eg. relatives, school.
  • Exercise is very important. Children who are fit cope better with an asthma attack.
  • Your child should avoid cigarette smoke.
  • Asthma is a condition that changes all the time – visit your GP regularly.
  • You should see your GP/paediatrician within one week of discharge from hospital
  • Children with severe asthma can get very sick if they get the flu. The flu vaccination is provided free of charge for children with severe asthma who are six months or older. Talk to your GP about vaccinating your child.

Things to remember

  • Reliever medication is taken to relieve symptoms of asthma including wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath.
  • Preventer medication should be taken every day as directed by your GP or paediatrician even if your child is well.
  • Always follow the Action Plan that the doctor has prepared for your child.
  • Children with any degree of asthma can have severe, life-threatening asthma attacks.
  • See a doctor if your child needs reliever medication more than every three hours. Give your child the reliever and follow the Action Plan on your way to the doctor.

In an emergency, always call 000 immediately. Otherwise, contact your local doctor or visit the emergency department of your nearest hospital. For non-urgent medical advice, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) to speak to a registered nurse, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the cost of a local call.

Useful information

Pre-school wheeze fact sheet | www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/fact-sheet-pre-school-wheeze

Puffers and spacers fact sheet | www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/fact-sheet-puffers-and-spacers

Educational asthma video series | www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/wheeze-action-plan

National Asthma Council | www.nationalasthma.org.au

Asthma Queensland | www.asthmaaustralia.org.au/qld/home

FS055 developed by Emergency Department, Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital. Updated: June 2018. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.

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