How to Tell if Your Child Has Asthma

Childhood asthma is notoriously difficult to diagnose. Kids come down with coughs and colds all the time, so how do you tell when a cough is a sign of an underlying condition? The key is knowing what symptoms to look out for and understanding the difference between asthma and just having a bit of a cough.

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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a long-term health condition that makes airways more sensitive to specific triggers. The airways react to these triggers, which can be different for everyone, and become tighter, inflamed or fill with mucus. This narrows the airways, making it difficult to breathe.

The inflammation is similar to an allergic reaction. Pollen could be an asthma trigger, causing a cough and difficulty breathing. This diagnosis is hay fever; yet another reason why childhood asthma is so challenging to diagnose.

Muscles around the airways tensing cause the tightness of the airways.

The mucus, or phlegm, builds up in the airways in an attempt by the body to get rid of whatever irritants are causing the problem. However, it makes the problem worse by filling space in the airway and making it even more difficult to breathe.

Difficult Diagnosis

According to Asthma UK, one in eleven children in the UK today has asthma. Diagnosing the condition is severe, due to an overlap of symptoms with several other common childhood ailments.

Food allergies often lead to wheezing and shortness of breath, so these can be a misdiagnosis instead of asthma. This works both ways, too, with asthma as the diagnosis instead of an allergy. This, of course, can be dangerous, so it is essential to speak to a doctor if you are concerned about food allergies or asthma.

As mentioned above, hay fever often presents with asthma-like symptoms. However, both conditions need very different treatments, so getting a correct diagnosis is crucial.

Asthma is also connected to eczema, although it's not fully understood why this link exists. So, if your child has eczema and is wheezing or short of breath, it’s well worth asking a doctor to check for asthma.

Recognizing Symptoms

What are the key symptoms of Asthma?

  • A persistent cough that is either always there or comes and goes
  • Coughing early in the morning or late at night
  • Coughing after physical exertion, e.g., P.E. at school or running around with friends
  • Wheezing and whistling when breathing
  • A tight feeling in the chest
  • A tummy ache, as a child may not know how to describe tightness any other way
  • Rubbing or clutching at stomach or chest
  • Quick, short or unusual breathing
  • Breathing is hard work, e.g., shoulders moving up and down to help them breathe

When to Get Help

If any of these symptoms appear, speak to your doctor as soon as possible. There’s often a feeling among parents that they don’t want to waste their GP’s time. However, a GP will always be happy to either allay a parent’s fears or give a correct diagnosis and get the child on the right treatment.

To help yourself at the appointment, make a note of when your child experiences the symptoms and exactly what those symptoms are. If possible, take a short video of your child experiencing the symptoms. Mention any other conditions such as known allergies or eczema, and if you live in a highly polluted area, e.g., next to the main road. If asthma is diagnosed, treatments may include:

  • A blue ‘relief’ inhaler, which helps open up the airways
  • A brown ‘prevent’ inhaler
  • A spacer which makes the inhalers easier to take. These are especially helpful for small children.

If you are concerned that your child may need attention quickly, always ask for an urgent appointment and explain that your child is breathing is affected. If your child is struggling to breathe, it is time to call 999. A child who is not getting enough oxygen may display the following symptoms:

  • Unable to eat or speak due to breathlessness
  • Visible ‘sucking in’ of throat
  • Ribs visibly standing out
  • Tummy sucked in
  • Unusually quiet or overtired

Childhood asthma can be treated and managed, so speak to a doctor who will work out the best way to diagnose and treat your child.

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Marjorie Sabando
 

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