What Exactly Is Asthma?

What Exactly Is Asthma?

In the United States, nearly 26 million people have asthma. More than seven million of them are children. 

Why are children so vulnerable?  With asthma, the lungs and airways can easily become inflamed. When they do, they swell and narrow. Since children have smaller airways than adults, it’s harder for air to pass through them during an asthma attack. As a result, asthma is especially serious for them.

When children are exposed to certain triggers, they can quickly develop a cough and have trouble breathing. Triggers can include anything they can breathe in. Pollen floating through the air and cigarette smoke are two examples.  Respiratory colds and infections can trigger asthma attacks, too. Symptoms can make it difficult – sometimes impossible – to focus at school, play sports and even sleep.

Is Adult and Child Asthma the Same?

Asthma is the same in adults and children. Due to their developing lungs and smaller airways, children can face more severe challenges with the disease. In fact, childhood asthma is a leading cause of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and missed school days. Parents often have to leave work to take care of a sick child.

The financial strain asthma poses to families and society is quite large. That’s why the American Lung Association (ALA) has launched the Enhancing Care for Children with Asthma project. Partnering with health clinics across the nation, the ALA project is educating children and families about the disease. It also provides help with asthma action plans, control medications and more.

As a chronic disease, childhood asthma can't be cured, but it can be managed. For many, asthma symptoms often continue into adulthood. 

How Do I Know What Asthma Triggers to Avoid?

Children with asthma may experience wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and trouble breathing. Many things can bring on an asthma attack, including:

  • Weather - cold air, changes in climate
  • Exercise - high-intensity movement
  • Infections - flu, common cold
  • Allergens - mold, pollen, dander from animals
  • Irritants - cigarette smoke, air pollution

With the right treatment, you and your child can keep symptoms under control and prevent damage to growing lungs.

Asthma is generally treated with two medicines:

  • Daily meds for long-term control ( ‘controller’ medicines) to prevent symptoms
  • Quick-relief meds to help with asthma attacks and flare-ups 

When your child has asthma, the condition is always there – even when things are going fine. Symptoms can flare up at any time. Medicine might not work as well as it once did in preventing an asthma attack. Your child may need to use a quick-relief medicine every day to stop asthma attacks. If this happens, talk with your child’s doctor. It could be a sign that your child’s asthma is getting worse. A change in medication may be needed to keep symptoms under control.

Take other steps to help fend off asthma attacks. Avoiding asthma triggers. Monitor symptoms. Create and follow an Asthma Action Plan. Most kids with asthma can do all the enjoyable things they want to do. Your child will feel better — and have more fun — when their asthma is controlled. 

Sources: The Impact of Asthmaleaving site icon American Lung Association 2020; Asthma in Children, leaving site icon MedlinePlus 2022; Asthma in Schools: Basics for Parentsleaving site icon American Lung Association, 2020; Asthma Quality Improvement: Enhancing Care for Children with Asthma, leaving site icon American Lung Association, 2022.

Originally published: 6/6/2016: Revised 2019, 2022