Your child’s inability to breathe properly and the wheezing sound you hear when they exhale could be signs of childhood asthma. Here’s what you need to know about the chronic disease.
The respiratory system is essential to sustaining life. However, when a child has asthma, sometimes even the simple act of breathing can be difficult. Sunway Medical Centre’s General Paediatrician, Dr Cham Weng Tarng sheds light on this relatively prevalent childhood illness and details the right steps to be taken when caring for an asthmatic child.
Delicate set of lungs
Asthma is the most common long-term illness in children that affects the lungs. In a way, asthma can prevent a child from having an active childhood. This is because they are more sensitive to their environment and need to be extra careful wherever they are. Dr Cham says that, “When an asthmatic child is surrounded by certain conditions or triggers like allergens, their airways will become narrower. As a result, it would make it hard for them to breathe”.
When that happens, the child will be vulnerable to an asthma attack. During the attack, the lining of the airways become thick and swollen due to inflammation. “If the attack worsens, the muscles surrounding the airways will squeeze together and get tight, causing bronchospasms,” explains Dr Cham. If the asthma attack reaches the point of severity, it can cause the airways to be filled with a thick mucus.
The symptoms of asthma can be quite apparent in a child as they would usually complain of having chest tightness, be prone to frequent coughing and wheezing, and would have the feeling of being out of breath. These symptoms can be different for every child depending on how well-controlled their asthma is.
Although not all children have asthma, there are many risk factors that can put them at an increased risk of developing it. Among some of the trigger points are a history of allergies or eczema, a family history of nasal allergies, a low birth rate, and the exposure to tobacco smoke before birth and during childhood. Other than that, having a respiratory infection called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) during childhood can also put the child at risk. “With these risk factors, the child has a higher chance of developing asthma due to the increased sensitivity within their airways,” says Dr Cham.
Levels of asthma
Asthma can vary depending on how serious the condition is in a child. “Mild asthma is when the child has minimal symptoms such as a mild cough after exercise or mild shortness of breath during an attack. The disease can be controlled with intermittent relievers, or short term preventers or controllers,” explains Dr Cham. “Moderate asthma is when the child has regular symptoms and needs long term preventers or controllers and regular relievers to control their symptoms,” he further explained. The most severe asthma, according to Dr Cham, “applies to children who require higher doses of preventer or controllers or combination treatments to control their symptoms”.
The right steps
“Both the parents and child would need to follow a combination of things in order to keep the disease under control and prevent asthma attacks from occurring frequently,” notes Dr Cham. Firstly, parents need to know the warning signs and what triggers the asthma attacks. “The triggers could be anything from infections, a change in temperature, pollen or mould. Dust, pet dander and certain foods could also be contributing factors,” Dr Cham points out. The next step is to follow an asthma action plan that has been prescribed by a doctor.
With an asthma action plan, parents would need to monitor the day-to-day asthma symptoms of a child and act appropriately as prescribed by the doctor. It is also advisable to record the asthma symptoms in an asthma diary. This will make it easier during discussions with a doctor on the asthma patterns observed in the child. Above all, Dr Cham stressed that “parents need to make sure the child takes his medication as prescribed by the asthma action plan”.
Although asthma medications do not cure the illness, they can help to keep the child’s condition under control, reduce the severity of symptoms and help the child’s lungs stay healthy. “Preventers or Controllers are inhalers that help keep the inflammation in the airways under control and prevent a severe asthma attack,” explains Dr Cham. “Relievers are inhalers that are used whenever there are asthma symptoms to reduce coughing and breathlessness,” he adds.
If your child has asthma, it is important to understand their trigger points as well as what can be done to relieve them. Besides that, if your child is old enough, do explain their condition to them so they understand what is happening when they have an asthma attack. This will prove to be beneficial as they would know what to do instead of panicking. “Asthma can affect a child’s lungs for the rest of their life. However with good asthma control, they can lead perfectly normal lives,” concludes Dr Cham.
Worried about your child during a fun family trip? Here’s what Dr Cham has to say about travelling with a child who has asthma:
- Make sure to bring all medications along during the trip.
- If the child has pollen allergies, it is advisable not to travel during spring or warm-weather months.
- If travelling to a place with cold weather, the child should wear a scarf to cover their nose and mouth to prevent an asthma attack.
- It is advisable for the child to get flu shots as infections such as influenza can trigger an asthmatic attack.
- If you do not speak the language of the country you are visiting, ensure that you can say a few important sentences to explain your child’s asthmatic condition. Purchasing a local SIM card and using an app from your phone would be the most helpful in such instances.