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Asthma In Children

What Brings On Asthma Symptoms?

Friday, March 16, 2012 - 17:31

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

A number of "triggers" can bring on an asthma episode. These can vary from child to child. They include:

Respiratory Infections

Respiratory-tract infections, such as the common cold and flu, can make asthma worse.

How To Information

Preventing attacks:

  • If your child has a cold, flu, and other trouble breathing, see the doctor. Antibiotics don't work against colds, but medication to open up the air passages will help.
  • Encourage your child to wash hands often. This can help reduce transmission of the cold viruses.
  • Consider flu shots for both the child and the family every year.

Exercise And Sports

Many asthmatic children suffer from asthma episodes brought on by exercise and sports.

Symptoms may begin after several minutes of exercise or after the exercise is over. They may last for a few minutes to an hour and usually get better by just stopping the exercise, but they can continue even with resting. These symptoms may limit play and interfere with performance.

The severity of the asthma episode will depend on how intense and for how long the child exercised.

The symptoms are not caused by the physical effort itself, but by the loss of heat and moisture from the air passages that occurs when dry, cold air is inhaled rapidly.

How To Information

Preventing attacks:

  • Work out a plan with your doctor. This may mean taking medication to prevent symptoms before exercising or playing sport.
  • Appropriate warm-up is important in reducing symptoms and can be very important for competitive athletes.
  • If asthma symptoms occur during sports, the child should take a short rest and then if possible continue. Medication may need to be taken when symptoms occur.

Need To Know

The importance of exercise for children with asthma

Almost all asthmatic children can play the sports they most enjoy if a good treatment plan has been worked out. Swimming is particularly encouraged by many physicians.

Even though exercise may cause symptoms, you should encourage your child to exercise and participate in sports. This is likely to help your child develop physically as well as gain self-confidence.

As many as 10% of all Olympic athletes are asthmatic.


Weather may affect asthmatic children in different ways. Some children wheeze more on damp days, some on dry days, and others only when the weather is very cold.

How To Informtion

Preventing attacks:

  • It is important to recognize if there is a relationship between the weather and your child's asthma, so that you'll be ready to deal with any symptoms, should they occur.
  • On particularly cold days, keeping the mouth and nose covered by a bulky scarf may be useful.
  • In very cold weather, if the child is wheezy, it's preferable not to play outside.
  • There is no point moving to a different climate. Asthma is quite common in all parts of the country.

Irritants And Pollutants

There are many chemicals and pollutants that irritate air passages and can trigger an asthma attack:

  • Anything with a strong smell such as aerosol sprays, perfumes, deodorizers, household cleaners, paints and varnishes.
  • Smoke, especially tobacco smoke.
  • Some types of air pollution (for example, car exhaust smoke).
  • At school, fumes from science labs.

How To Information

Preventing attacks:

  • Keep strong-smelling cleaning fluids out of your house, or keep the child out of areas where household cleaners and other substances with strong odors are being used.
  • Make sure no one smokes in the house (even smoke on people's clothes can sometimes trigger attacks).
  • Avoid smoke from barbecues, fireplaces, etc.
  • When pollution is bad, use air conditioning, if you have it.
  • Rooms where hobbies are performed that produce strong smells should be aired thoroughly and often.

Certain Medications And Food

Aspirin can occasionally trigger an attack in some children. But children should never be given aspirin because of the risk of a rare but potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome.

Rarely, certain foods, especially sulfite preservatives, may trigger an asthma episode.


If someone has an allergy, it means they react to substances that are normally quite harmless. These substances, or "allergens," can either be inhaled or ingested. At first, reactions may be very minor, barely noticeable. But repeated exposure gradually increases sensitivity.

Most asthmatic children are allergic. They may be allergic to many different things. And the more severe the allergy, the more severe the asthma. If the levels of allergen (anything that brings on an allergic attack) in the home or environment are high, asthma is also likely to be more severe.

In an allergic reaction, certain body cells release various chemicals. In an asthma attack brought on by an allergen, these chemicals irritate the inflamed air passages and cause the reactions that make the airways narrow and breathing difficult.

The following allergens are known to bring on asthma attacks:

  • House dust mites - These are tiny microscopic insects that live in dust. They are commonly found in mattresses, pillows, bedding, carpets, and upholstered furniture. They are a common source of allergies and are especially common in warm, damp climates.

    Prevention: Dust mites cannot be entirely avoided. But you should aim to lessen the child's exposure to them, particularly in the bedroom:

    • Put plastic zippered covers on mattresses and pillows.
    • In the child's bedroom, move out anything that collects dust (including the carpet if possible) and avoid upholstered furniture and clutter.
    • Keep as few stuffed animals as possible and wash them in hot water weekly (they can be put in a pillowcase that is closed with a clothespin).
    • Wash all bedding each week in hot water (at least 135 F).
    • Linoleum, tile, and hardwood floors are best for minimizing both dust and dust mites.
    • Vacuum when the child is out of the area. Vacuuming will not get rid of mites, and in fact spreads them up into the air for several minutes before they settle again. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA air filter (which stands for "high efficiency particle arresting").
    • Keep humidity in the child's environment low, around 35% (never over 50%), because high humidity encourages dust mite growth.
    • Air conditioners are recommended. If possible, add special filters to help trap allergens (HEPA air filter).
    • Curtains should be laundered often; it is better to avoid heavy curtains.
  • Mold - Mold is the greenish material that grows in damp places. Mold releases microscopic particles called spores for their reproduction. These spores can float through open windows into the house, especially on cool nights in the spring and fall. Asthma attacks may also be triggered by the type of mold that grows in the house.

    Prevention: Ways to reduce exposure to molds include:

    • If possible, use air conditioning and filtration to reduce humidity. This will help control mold.
    • Avoiding indoor mold spores requires regular ventilation of the kitchen, bathroom, basement, and other damp areas of the house.
    • Clean out mold from damp places in the house, and clear out moldy objects from closets. Use a spray cleaner with a fungicide in it.
    • Keep bedroom windows closed to keep out mold and pollen spores.
    • Keep drainage from rainwater away from the house, so as to decrease humidity in the basement.
    • If you use a humidifier, clean it often. Otherwise mold can grow inside it.
  • Pollen - Pollen is made up of microscopic particles released by plants for their reproduction. Pollen is more a cause of hay fever than asthma, but there are some children with asthma who clearly have problems with ragweed and other typical plant pollens. You should note whether your child's asthma is worse when the grass is being mowed or when the pollen count is high.

    Prevention: Ways to reduce exposure to pollen include:

    • Pay attention to the pollen count in your area, and keep the windows shut whenever necessary.
    • Air conditioning and filtration systems can be very helpful in minimizing pollen and in keeping the humidity down. But check with your doctor before purchasing expensive equipment.
    • On days of high mold and pollen counts, have the child take a shower and wash his or her hair before bedtime (to get the pollen and mold out). Also, leave outdoor clothes out of the bedroom.
    • Change pillowcases every two to three days.
  • Pets - Many children are allergic to a substance in the saliva and on the skin of furry animals. This substance will get on the dog's or cat's coat, and when it dries, it can float through the air. It can still be found on the walls of a house even months after a pet has left.

    Hamsters, mice, and rats can produce the same problem. In some children, feathers also set off an allergic reaction.

    Animal allergens are such a potent stimulator of asthma that it is safe to assume that frequent asthma symptoms in a child living with a furry pet are caused by the pet.

    Prevention: Ways to deal with pet allergy include:

    • The best way is to find the pet another home.
    • If this is out of the question, the pet should be kept outdoors as much as possible and never allowed into the child's bedroom.
    • Deciding what to do about a pet is not easy, but if its presence really worsens the child's condition, making the hard decision is the right thing to do.
  • Cockroaches - The dried-up body parts of dead cockroaches are a very potent stimulator of asthma.

    Prevention: Regular cockroach control is essential to good control of asthma.


Stress does not cause asthma, but when a child is stressed out, it can make the asthma worse. If the child is afraid of asthma attacks, this fear can also make the attacks worse.

Prevention: Dealing with fear about asthma should be part of a program of preventing and managing attacks that is worked out between you, your child, and your doctor. If your child seems stressed out, talk to your doctor.

Certain Health Problems

Certain health problems, such as sinusitis and heartburn, can make asthma worse.

  • Sinusitis - The sinuses are hollow parts of the facial bones that can become infected. Children with sinusitis may have a post-nasal drip that irritates the airways, making the asthma hard to control.

    Prevention: Work with the doctor on treating the sinusitis. If the doctor prescribes antibiotics, make sure the child takes them all.

  • Heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux) - Even in young children, the contents of the stomach may occasionally flow back towards the throat, and this can make asthma worse.

    Prevention: The doctor may suggest:

    • Avoiding foods that seem to cause heartburn
    • Raising the head of the child's bed, to avoid heartburn at night
    • Medication

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