Having difficulty breathing can be one of the scariest situations a child can ever endure. And, for parents, seeing your child struggling to breathe can be terrifying.
Asthma, a condition in which a child’s airways narrow and swell, is one of the most common, chronic childhood illnesses, affecting seven million people at any given time.
What causes asthma?
An asthma attack begins with a trigger. The most common triggers are allergies and the common cold, but specific irritants like cigarette smoke, strong perfumes, dust, high ozone and changes in humidity can also trigger asthma.
When a trigger occurs, the smooth muscle around the airway begins to contract, causing the airway to be smaller. That irritation in the airway causes swelling, which in turn causes cells to begin secreting mucus, making the airway even more narrow.
The narrowing of the airway causes the asthma attack, which includes a dry cough, respiratory distress and the panic of not being able to breathe. If the airway constricts enough, it will cause a wheeze, which can come out as a musical sound.
As the asthma attack begins, the wheeze happens on the child’s exhale. As the attack progresses, the wheeze happens on both the inhale and the exhale.
With severe asthma, the wheeze occurs only when breathing in, and in the most severe cases, there is no wheezing at all, as there isn’t enough air coming through to make any sound.
When wheezing occurs – even if your child has a known case of asthma – it is important to get to a medical facility immediately for treatment.
How is asthma treated?
The immediate course of action for an asthma attack is an albuterol breathing treatment, which relaxes the muscle around the airway.
The next treatment is a steroid – either through an IV, an intramuscular shot, or an oral medication, which reduces the swelling of those cells in the airway.
If your child has respiratory distress with wheezing, they need to see a doctor immediately. If the attack occurs during the day, you can see your regular physician, but if the serious asthma attack occurs at night, get your child to the local Emergency Department immediately.
If you are alone, call 911 because it’s difficult for a parent to drive safely while their child is struggling to breathe.
How can you prevent an asthma attack?
Learn the triggers. Some, like heavy perfumes or cigarette smoke, are easier to avoid than others, like the common cold, but if you know your or your child’s asthma is triggered by specific allergens, do everything you can to avoid those triggers.
During allergy season, control those reactions with a daily medication if possible. If dust is a trigger for your child, clean frequently and make sure the air filters are changed every month.
For some, an inhaled steroid can reduce chronic inflammation. If avoiding triggers and using an inhaler do not limit your child’s asthma attacks, further treatment is likely needed. Your physician might set up a consultation with a specialist – a pulmonologist or an allergist – for further treatment and prevention.
Reminder – if your child is having respiratory distress with wheezing, it is important to not wait to receive treatment.