Skip to main content

Asthma (babies and children)

Asthma can affect your child's breathing. Learn the symptoms and how to treat it, and what do if they have an asthma attack.

Asthma is a common lung condition that can affect your child's breathing.

What to do in an emergency

Follow these steps if your child is having an asthma attack:

1. Stay calm as this will help your child stay calm - breathing can become harder if they are stressed.

2. Sit them upright.

3. Ask them to take slow breaths.

4. Connect their face mask or spacer device to their inhaler.

5. Give them a puff of their inhaler every minute. Children under the age of 6 can have 6 puffs in a 10 minute period. Children over the age of 6 can take 10 puffs over 10 minutes.

Call 999 or 112 if their symptoms have not improved after 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat step 5 every 10 minutes until the ambulance arrives

Take the details of your child’s inhalers, other medicines and personal asthma action plan with you if you go to hospital.

Symptoms

Symptoms can include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing or noisy breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • soreness in the tummy
  • tiredness
  • difficulty speaking

Most of the time your child may have mild symptoms or none at all. Occasionally symptoms can suddenly get worse, this is called an 'asthma attack'.

Causes

Asthma is caused by swelling of the breathing tubes which causes the airways to narrow, making it hard to breathe. This also causes mucus to be produced which can cause your child to cough.

Your child is more likely to have asthma if other members of your family have asthma. Related conditions like hay fever, eczema or food allergies can also increase their risk of asthma.

Asthma triggers

The following things can trigger an asthma attack:

  • infections
  • allergies
  • exercise
  • pollution
  • cold air

Smoking around children or their homes can trigger an asthma attack. Traces of smoke on hair and clothes can also make your child’s asthma worse.

Diagnosing and treating asthma

Take your child to your GP if you think they have asthma.

Your GP will ask some questions and listen to your child’s chest. They may also need to do some tests, where your child will need to blow into a device that measures their breathing or airflow.

Treatment

Inhalers are usually prescribed to treat asthma. Inhalers are devices that allow small amounts of medicine to be breathed into the lungs. This treatment is usually very effective.

There are two main types of inhaler:

  • reliever inhalers
  • preventer inhalers

Reliever inhalers

Reliever inhalers relax the muscles around the breathing tubes during an asthma attack. This allows airways to open, making it easier to breathe. Most reliever inhalers are blue.

If your child needs their reliever inhaler more than 3 times a week, they will need a preventer inhaler too.

Preventer inhaler

These inhalers prevent your child’s symptoms from appearing and reduce the risk of long-term problems. Most use a small dose of steroids.

Preventer inhalers work gradually over time. They won't relieve sudden attacks.

Your child should use their preventer inhaler every day or it won't work.

Your GP or GP practice nurse will show you how to use the inhaler and may give you an asthma action plan, which explains what to do during an asthma attack.

Face masks and spacer devices

Most young children will be prescribed a face mask which attaches to their inhaler. Older children will be prescribed a 'spacer device'. A spacer device is a plastic or metal container with a mouthpiece and a hole for the inhaler.

If your child has been prescribed a face mask or a spacer device, it is important to always use these. Face masks and spacers are the best way of making sure that your child gets the correct dose of medication right to their lungs.

child_using_spacer_device
A child using a spacer device

Other treatments

You child might also be given the following medicines:

  • steroid tablets - these can help your child recover after an attack. It's safe to use them for 3 to 5 days
  • leukotriene receptor antagonists - these tablets will be prescribed if inhalers are not strong enough

If your child’s asthma is severe they may be referred to a consultant for further treatment.

GP visits

Children with asthma will be assessed regularly to check:

  • their symptoms
  • their medication
  • they're using their inhaler correctly

Your GP or GP practice nurse will usually assess your child 3 months after they are first diagnosed. Your child will have annual checks until they are 6 years old.

Asthma tends to be a long-term condition. Some children with asthma can 'grow out' of it in their teens. But it can come back when they are adults.

Complications

Although asthma can normally be kept under control, it's a serious condition that can cause a number of problems.

This is why it's so important to follow your child's treatment plan. Trust your instincts, always bring them to your GP if you feel they are getting worse.

Badly controlled asthma can cause problems such as:

  • feeling tired all the time
  • missing school or not doing well in school
  • stress, anxiety or depression
  • lung infections (pneumonia)
  • delays in growth or puberty

There's also a risk of severe asthma attacks, which can be life-threatening.

Childcare and school

Choosing childcare

Make sure your childcare provider understands your child's asthma.

It is a good idea to leave a reliever inhaler at your child's childcare location. Make sure the childcare provider knows how to give your child their inhaler.

If there are pets or if anyone who will be smoking around your child, you might need to think about choosing different childcare for your child.

Coping with school

Make sure the teacher knows your child has asthma. Give a reliever inhaler to your teacher.

It is a good idea that your child has one in their bag too, especially as they get older. This means they can take it whenever they need to.

Make sure the teacher knows if your child needs to take their inhaler before exercise. It's also a good idea for your child to bring their inhaler with them on school tours.

More information

The Asthma Society of Irelandhas more information and advice.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

Page last reviewed: 14/11/2018
Next review due: 14/11/2021