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Recognizing childhood asthma – do you know the signs?

With this year’s entry into the flu season early, we’re already well into the yearly spike in hospitalizations for kids with breathing problems. Reflecting on a friend’s recent experience and our learning curve with our ten-year-old’s asthma, I thought it might be useful for parents who don’t think that their kids have asthma to educate themselves. If you have a child under five, I hope this helps you be alert to the possibility that your child will have breathing problems sometime during this flu and cold season.

What is asthma?

Asthma is when the air pathways from the lungs seize up due to a trigger: an allergen, exercise, or an infection. Asthma looks like the person is having trouble breathing in – it’s actually the case that the air has trouble going out. Asthma comes in many flavors, from an occasional bout with wheezing to a dangerous, persistent problem that follows the person through life. Some children outgrow asthma; others continue to have breathing problems as adults.

People with asthma may or may not have audible wheezing. They may or may not cough as a result of it. As in all things, each person’s body reacts slightly differently.

Recognizing asthma

Our son had a couple of bouts of wheezing when he was little before we recognized it for what it was. My husband had severe childhood asthma, but it just didn’t cross our mind that our healthy little boy had it. Then we ended up in the emergency room and spent the night in the hospital. That was enough to get us educated.

If your small child’s cold or flu always descends into a cough, pay special attention to her breathing. Here are some simple diagnostic techniques:

  • Watch your child breathe without a shirt on. The little indentation at the bottom of the neck, where the collarbone comes together, should not suck in visibly when the child is breathing. If it does, this is one possible indication of breathing problems.
  • Similarly, look at the spot at the top of the stomach where the ribcage comes together. If this spot sucks in visibly during normal breathing, take note.
  • Take note if your child is panting after normal exercise or gasping while talking.
  • Have your child take a big breath and blow out hard. Pretend that they’re blowing you over – this always goes over well with little kids. A kid whose lungs are seizing up will probably cough when blowing out hard.
  • Listen with the naked ear to your child’s chest. If you can hear noise, call the doctor.
  • Buy a cheap stethoscope. Ask your doctor or nurse to show you where to listen. Wheezing sounds like popping, creaking, or sighing noises in the lungs.
  • Always call the doctor if you think your child is wheezing, no matter what.

Treating asthma

Asthma is serious: over 4000 Americans die of its complications every year. When we brought our son to the emergency room, we checked in behind a man whose daughter was holding a bloody cloth to her head. She had fallen, lost consciousness, then thrown up upon waking. Who did they take in first? My son.

When a child is wheezing, it needs to be treated immediately. These treatments are therapeutic and stop the wheezing. The medicine is used to stop the reaction immediately so that air can enter the lungs.

Other asthma treatments are preventative. One therapy is to remove the triggers from the environment. When our son was small, we found out about a free asthma home visit program through the state. A wonderful consultant came and helped us set up the best environment for our son’s health. It was great, though at the time the program was being cut and I don’t know if it exists anymore.

The medication that has changed my son’s life is an inhaled steroid that helps his lungs from reacting in the first place. He takes a dose so small that it doesn’t even register on the longterm side effects chart, and it keeps him out of the hospital. I know that parents have reservations about steroids, but these drugs are well documented and are far less risky than rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night. It also changes your child’s life from a child who is sickly to a child that is well most of the time.

Who gets asthma?

When you were a child, asthmatic kids were probably those kids with other illnesses, especially severe allergies, who looked sick. These days, asthma continues to grow due to a large variety of factors. You can’t tell a child with asthma by looking at him. Even if both parents never had asthma, your child could have breathing problems. It’s worth watching and asking your doctor if you have any suspicions at all. It wasn’t until my friend’s daughter was hospitalized that she realized that her daughter had been showing symptoms. In the everyday busy life of a parent, these small indications might easily get overlooked until the situation is dangerous.

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