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Watch for asthma symptoms in toddlers

When your toddler begins to wheeze and cough, it could be a cold—or it might be asthma.

Asthma is a disease that affects the breathing tubes that carry air to the lungs. And it can be very serious for young kids. Even mild symptoms can quickly become life-threatening, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).

The goal with kids who have asthma is to keep it in control. This means knowing what sets off their asthma and how to control these triggers. It also may mean taking the right medicines.

Recognizing symptoms

Asthma symptoms can vary from child to child. Parents should watch for:

  • Frequent colds or other illnesses that affect the lungs or breathing.
  • Trouble breathing when your child plays hard, cries, laughs or breathes cold air.
  • Coughing that doesn't go away or that comes back often (especially at night).
  • Wheezing, shortness of breath or a tight feeling in the chest.
  • Skin that looks like it pulls tight around the ribs or neck when the child tries to breathe.
  • Complaints by your child that "My chest hurts."

Asthma symptoms can be similar to a cold, bronchitis and some other infections. If these symptoms happen often, asthma could be the cause, notes the ACAAI. To find out, you should take your child to the doctor.

When you visit the doctor, be ready to describe all your child's symptoms. Also tell your doctor if any family members have asthma. Sometimes, there's a genetic link to asthma.

Taming asthma triggers

If a doctor confirms your child does have asthma, you'll want to do all you can to manage the disease. First you need to know what makes your child's asthma start up or get worse. Then you can take steps to control these triggers.

The two most common triggers of asthma in kids are colds and allergies to things around them. Kids might be allergic to pets, dust mites or cockroaches. They also can react to smoke, cleaning products or air pollution.

Tests can help find out if your child has any of these allergies.

Stress or worry can cause an attack too, but these are less common. Other things that can cause asthma symptoms are sinus infections, allergic reactions to certain foods and medicines, or airways that have been injured in the past—due to breathing cigarette smoke, for example.

Once you know what your child's triggers are, you can take steps to control them. You should, of course, avoid smoking around your child. And don't let anyone else smoke near your child either. Depending on your child's other asthma triggers, you may need to:

  • Take pets and plants out of the home.
  • Get rid of dust mites in your child's bedroom.
  • Control cockroaches.
  • Wash molds away with detergent and water. Or you may have to remove moldy surfaces entirely.
  • Avoid cleaning products and candles that have scents.
  • Reduce mold by controlling humidity levels in the home. Exhaust fans or a dehumidifier may help.
  • Reduce contact with pollen by keeping doors and windows closed when pollen counts are high. Using an air conditioner in your child's room will also help.
  • Keep your child indoors when air quality is poor.

Your child's doctor may prescribe medicines for asthma as well.

Dealing with an emergency

In spite of your best efforts to protect your child, some situations may arise that require quick medical care. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you should call a doctor if your child has a fever and a cough or wheezing that doesn't go away, even if you treat it.

Also call your doctor if your child is vomiting and can't take medicine by mouth, or when he or she has trouble speaking or sleeping due to wheezing, coughing or troubled breathing.

Consider going to an emergency room if:

  • Your child has chest, throat or neck pain.
  • Your child has severe trouble breathing and the problem seems to be getting worse.
  • Your child's mouth or fingertips look blue.
  • Your child is agitated, unusually sleepy or confused.

Fast action is vital in an emergency. So don't wait. If you think your child needs help, get it right away.

Reviewed 11/17/2023

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