It’s one o’clock in the morning and your child is wheezing, coughing and finding it difficult to breathe. This is a frightening experience that is all too common for parents when their child has their first asthma or asthma-like episode.
With World Asthma Day on the 5th of May, we answer some of the questions (and there are a lot!) that parents and carers may have about children’s wheezing and childhood asthma.
What is the difference between wheezing and childhood asthma?
There are many reasons for kids to wheeze. Most children who wheeze when they have a viral illness will outgrow this by the age of 6. If your child often wheezes, coughs or has shortness of breath, maybe causing them to wake at night, asthma is more likely. See your doctor if you are concerned that your child might have asthma. Take them to the emergency department if your child is wheezing and has tightness in their chest, can’t speak comfortably or their lips look blue. NPS MedicineWise, Asthma Australia and the National Asthma Council have a new fact sheet about asthma and wheezing in children.
How do we get a diagnosis?
A spirometry test which measures how much air your child can breathe out, and how quickly they can do this, can give valuable information to support a diagnosis of asthma. Children aged under 6 can’t do this test easily because it requires a big effort. At present, spirometry tests for most people are being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Talk to your doctor about if and when a spirometry test is needed. Even without a spirometry test, if your child’s symptoms are likely to be due to asthma, your doctor may prescribe asthma medicines based on your child’s history and examination. Your GP will regularly review the need for these medicines as your child gets older and adjust the dose if needed.
What are the medicines for treating asthma and how do I give them to my child properly?
You probably know about the ‘asthma puffer’ which is classified into two groups. The first group contains a ‘reliever’ medicine which helps if your child has to relieve troubled breathing right away and is therefore taken when needed. All children with asthma are prescribed a reliever medicine. The second group includes ‘preventer’ medicines which are prescribed if your child needs to use the reliever medicine more than twice a week; they help treat the underlying cause of asthma and help prevent difficulty breathing in the first place. Not all children will need a preventer – it depends on how often they have symptoms and how severe they are.
Puffers can be tricky to use for small kids, especially when they are first learning, and they usually need an extra device called a spacer to help them inhale the medicine properly. NPS MedicineWise has some tips for using asthma puffers.
What if my child gets side effects from asthma medicines?
Rinsing the mouth after use and using a spacer can markedly reduce side effects of asthma ‘preventer’ puffers such as a hoarse voice, sore mouth or throat, or fungal infections in the throat.
If your child has side effects or is using the ‘reliever’ puffer more than twice a week, you should take them to the doctor for an asthma check-up and review of their asthma action plan. Using an asthma ‘reliever’ puffer too much can change the way your child’s airways work over time, making asthma episodes more likely and more severe, and is a sign that your child’s asthma is not well controlled.
What is important to remember during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Like asthma, COVID-19 affects breathing, and so during the pandemic it is particularly important to have your child’s asthma under control. Make sure your child’s asthma action plan, which your doctor can put together with you, is up-to-date and being followed. This means making sure your child is taking all their asthma medicines correctly, and that you and your child knows what to do in case of an asthma emergency.
Some more reading for parents from NPS MedicineWise about childhood asthma
- Asthma and wheezing in children
- Medicines for treating asthma
- Using medicines at school
- Tips for using asthma inhalers
By Matthew Harris, NPS MedicineWise
Independent, not-for-profit and evidence based, NPS MedicineWise enables better decisions about medicines, medical tests and other health technologies.