Asthma is increasingly common amongst children. Asthma causes the bronchi (the small tubes inside the lungs that carry air in and out of the lungs) to swell; this causes difficulties with breathing. In most cases, asthma is mild and can be controlled with medication, but it can be very dangerous and potentially fatal in extreme cases.

Causes of asthma

The exact cause of asthma is unknown, but there are a number of risk factors that may contribute to the development of asthma; these include:

  • Family history of asthma, allergies or respiratory problems
  • Being born prematurely or being a low weight at birth
  • Suffering from bronchiolitis (this is an infection in the lungs)during childhood

Asthma can be brought on by several different triggers; often these triggers make symptoms worse and may cause an asthma attack. Common triggers include:

  • Animal hair
  • Dust
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Airborne allergens (such as pollen)
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Changes in the weather
  • Damp and polluted environments
  • Certain medications (including non-steroid anti-inflammatory medicines such as aspirin and ibuprofen)
  • Certain foods (especially those with a high sulphite content)

Symptoms of asthma

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • Wheezing
  • Difficulties with breathing
  • Coughing (especially during the night)
  • Tightness in the chest

Symptoms often worsen when a child is surrounded by triggers or is suffering with another illness. Symptoms of an asthma attack usually take a while to develop fully, so it can be difficult to foresee an attack; it is important to look out for signs such as:

  • Decreased breathing capacity (lower peak flow)
  • Increased pulse rate
  • Emotional changes (especially feeling irritated, short-tempered and restless)
  • Increased wheezing

Asthma attacks

Asthma attacks can potentially be life-threatening so they must be treated as a medical emergency. During an asthma attack, the body undergoes a process known as inflammation; this occurs as a result of the body protecting itself against a trigger. When the process starts, white blood cells are sent to breakdown the infection and mucus is released. In asthmatics, the body overreacts to the inflammation process and too much mucus is produced; this causes the airways to become partially blocked and breathing becomes increasingly difficult.  Inflammation also causes the muscles around the airways to swell, which makes them even narrower.

Treating asthma

Many children with asthma have inhalers, which help to make it easier to breathe; the amount they use their inhaler usually depends on the severity of their individual case. Severe cases of asthma may also be treated with additional medications. Doctors will also identify triggers in individual cases; this makes it easier to prevent asthma attacks as the child can be kept away from particular triggers. In many cases, asthma gets better as children age and many grow out of it completely.

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