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Prevent & Heal

Hope for Kids With Asthma

By Dr. Martin Belson,

CBN.comAsthma can be a scary diagnosis. Parents understandably get fixated on the fact that fortunately very few children die of asthma every year.

All this fear surrounding asthma is unfortunate, because most cases of asthma are easy to treat with safe medications. Today there is no reason why a child with asthma cannot live a totally normal life, and participate in the same activities and sports as his or her non-asthmatic friends.

If childhood asthma is correctly diagnosed and treated properly, it is nothing to be afraid of.

What is asthma?

  • Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood, affecting approximately 5 – 10% of children.
  • Asthma is one of the diseases that have increased significantly in the United States over the last 25 years - approximately five million children in the US have asthma.
  • Asthma is a disease of the respiratory tract, or the passageways that carry air to the lungs.
  • During an “asthma attack” your childs airways become irritated and narrowed so that airflow is decreased and breathing is made difficult.
  • An “asthma attack” results from exposure to many different kinds of environmental triggers (see below).
  • A child of an asthmatic parent will not necessarily develop asthma. There is only an increased chance of developing asthma.
  • Prevention and early treatment of asthma may help reduce the number of days your child is absent from school or in the hospital.

What can trigger an “asthma attack” or make asthma worse?

Viral infections of the ear, nose, and throat (e.g., sinusitis, the common cold)

Other infections (such as pneumonia)

Cigarette smoke 

Irritants in the air (air pollution) 

Changes in weather, especially cold air or humidity 

Things your child may be allergic to (allergens)

Pet dander 


Dust mites 




Emotional stress

What are the typical signs and symptoms of an “asthma attack”?

Symptoms of asthma can be different for each child, depending on how often they occur or how much or how fast the airways become narrowed. Some children have symptoms of asthma most days and may have to take daily medication; others just may need medication when they have asthma symptoms. Many children with asthma cough or wheeze at night. Some children are even awakened at night by these symptoms.

Typical signs and symptoms of an “asthma attack” include:

Cough – may be the first and sometimes the only symptom of early asthma

Wheezing – this is a high-pitched whistling sound that is produced by air rushing through narrow breathing tubes.

Chest tightness

The signs and symptoms below in addition to cough and wheezing indicate a severe “asthma attack”:

Shortness of breath

Labored breathing – the child is breathing fast and may use extra muscles from the neck, abdomen and                                        chest to help "draw in" air.  Will see “drawing in” of the muscles between the ribs.

Difficulty speaking

Anxiety or drowsiness may occur

Large decreases in your child's peak flow rate measurements

What are other causes for wheezing in children?

I was always taught that “all that wheezes is not asthma”. The two most common problems other than asthma that bring children into the ER with wheezing are bronchiolitis and foreign body aspiration (a foreign body such as a peanut stuck in the airway).

Foreign body aspiration:

             Most commonly seen between 6 months and 5 years

             Usually a sudden history of choking, cough, or wheezing after
             playing with a small object

Some other causes for wheezing include:

             Cystic fibrosis
             Gastroesophageal reflux
             Allergic reaction
             Heart problem
             Other congenital abnormalities

What is the treatment for asthma?

There are different kinds of asthma medications. Your pediatrician will choose the best medications for your child; some will be used continuously to help prevent an asthma attack, while others will only be used during asthma attacks.

Discuss a treatment plan with your pediatrician so that you will know which medication your child should use first when the early signs of an asthma attack develop. This will help reduce the need for a trip to an ER and for hospitalization. 

There are 3 general groups of asthma medications, both of which are very necessary in the treatment of asthma:

1. Bronchodilators (e.g., albuterol, xopinex) open up narrow passageways. They help relieve chest tightness, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. These drugs can be given by mouth or breathed in by metered dose inhaler or by nebulizer in an aerosol (mist) form.

      Studies demonstrate that inhaled bronchodilator medication is very
      efficiently delivered by the hand-held metered dose inhaler;
      however, this requires that the instructions be followed carefully.

      Some bronchodilators are used to treat a sudden, acute asthma
      attack (e.g., albuterol, xopinex), while others are indicated for the
      long-term, maintenance treatment of asthma (e.g., serevent).

      Recent studies suggest that overuse of these medications may
      worsen asthma, so only take the amount recommended by your

2. Anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e. steroids) help prevent the swelling and inflammation in the airways. These drugs can be given by mouth (e.g., orapred), by injection or breathed in by metered dose inhaler (e.g., pulmicort) or by nebulizer in an aerosol (mist) form.

      Steroids taken by mouth for long periods of time can cause
      unwanted side effects such as weight gain and growth
      problems.  An occasional, brief course (3 – 5 days) of
      steroids by mouth is not expected to be harmful and can
      help improve a sudden asthma attack.

       Inhaled steroids can be taken for long periods of time
       without harmful side effects because they go directly to
       the lungs and not the rest of the body.

       Anti-inflammatory medications given by metered dose inhaler
       must be taken regularly to be effective. 

These medications (e.g., pulmicort) do not have an immediate effect and therefore are mistakenly discontinued. Their beneficial effects occur gradually over weeks and months of consistent use.

3. Leukotriene modifiers (e.g., Singulair) are a new class of oral anti-inflammatory asthma drugs available by prescription.

Should my child use a spacer device when using a metered dose inhaler?

  • Yes, approximately half of asthma patients do not properly use their inhaler, and this problem can be overcome by the use of a spacer device.
  • Spacer devices allow the metered dose inhaler to first be sprayed into this container and then the patient breathes in the inhaled medication from the spacer.

How can an asthma attack be prevented?

  • Create a treatment plan with your pediatrician in order to decrease the frequency and severity of attacks and to allow your child to be involved in childhood activities as much as possible.
  • Reduce exposure to triggers as listed above
  • Know how to recognize early signs and symptoms of an asthma attack in your child
  • The use of a peak flow meter can help you to recognize when your child's airway is narrowing, so asthma treatment can be started early.

                 Peak flow rate measurements can usually be used for 
                  children older than 5 - 6 years.

                 Your pediatrician can show you and your child how to use a
                  peak flow meter and how to find out your child's "personal
                  best" peak flow rate.

                 Peak flow rates decrease (the numbers on the scale go
                  down) when your child's asthma is getting worse.

                 Peak flow rates increase (the numbers on the scale go up)
                  when the asthma treatment is working and the airways are
                  opening up.

When should I contact my pediatrician concerning my child’s asthma?

You should call your doctor anytime your child’s asthma is worsening and not responding to regular medication.

You should also call anytime you run out of your child’s medication rather than wait until the next asthma attack.

Call immediately for any signs and symptoms that indicate your child is having a severe “asthma attack”.

If you are unable to reach your doctor when your child is having a severe attack take your child immediately to an ER or call 911.


Dr. Martin Belson with his girls

Dr. Martin Belson ("Dr. Marty") is a board certified pediatrician and pediatric emergency physician, board certified medical toxicologist, and the former president of the Greater Atlanta Pediatric Society. His most important job is raising his daughters, Brooke and Anna. His Web site,, is a user-friendly resource for moms and dads that details children's health emergencies and poisonings.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Marty.


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