Asthma in Babies

It can be scary if you suspect your baby or toddler has asthma. But the good news is, effective treatment is available. Here are the deets.
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By Jennifer L.W. Fink, Registered Nurse
Updated March 2, 2017
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What is asthma in babies?

Asthma is a common lung disease that can cause wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. The latest research suggests that asthma is essentially the result of a hypersensitive airway. In other words, when the airway of someone with asthma is exposed to a trigger substance, such as smoke or an environmental allergen, the airway constricts and the tissue inside the airway becomes inflamed. At the same time, the body produces excess mucus in a misguided attempt to flush the allergen out of the airway. The combination of an inflamed, restricted airway and mucus makes it very difficult to breathe. (Imagine squeezing a plastic straw and then trying to slurp a thick milk shake through it — that’s how tough it is to breathe.)

Asthma and  allergies often go hand in hand in babies and toddlers. “About 80 percent of children who have asthma also have allergic rhinitis, an allergy to an environmental substance that affects their nose and, potentially, also their eyes,” says Mark Moss, MD, pediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics. “Allergy triggers for asthma in children are very common.”

What are the symptoms of asthma in babies?

While most people think of wheezing as the classic symptom of asthma, in kids, coughing is actually a more common asthma symptom. If your child has a chronic cough, take him to the doctor for evaluation — especially if he has a history of allergies or a family history of asthma.

Other common asthma symptoms include shortness of breath (especially with moderate activity), chest congestion and difficulty recovering after a cold or respiratory illness.

Are there any tests for asthma in babies?

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It’s really tough to diagnose asthma in babies and toddlers. Lung function tests, which are used to diagnose asthma in older kids, aren’t accurate in children under age six.

The other problem: Asthma can mimic — or occur alongside — other respiratory conditions, making it extra tough to diagnose. If you suspect that your child has asthma, take him to your pediatrician for a full physical. The doc will thoroughly examine him and ask you questions about his symptoms and family history. If it looks like your child has allergies (which may be related to asthma), your pediatrician might refer your child to a pediatric allergist. You and your child might also see a special lung doctor called a pulmonologist.

How common is asthma in babies?

About 10 to 12 percent of kids have asthma (and the number seems to be rising!). Most of them experience their first symptoms by age five, though they may not be diagnosed until much later.

How did my baby get asthma?

Good question! A genetic predisposition may play a role, since asthma is more common in some families than others. Asthma is also more common in people with allergies (or a family history of allergies). Early exposure to cigarette smoke also increases a baby’s chances of developing asthma.

What’s the best way to treat asthma in babies?

Step #1: Avoid potential triggers. “Allergies can trigger asthma attacks in many children,” Moss says. “In those cases, it can be very helpful to avoid or remove allergic triggers from the home and the child’s environment.” If your child is allergic to dust, for instance, removing stuffed animals (which attract dust!) from his room can decrease the number and severity of asthma attacks.

Keep your child far away from cigarette smoke (which is known to trigger asthma attacks) and do your best to minimize his exposure to respiratory viruses. Don’t go overboard, though. Just wash your child’s hands frequently and stay away from sick people; an annual flu shot is also recommended for children with asthma (baby can get one after his six-month birthday).

Step #2: Work with your doctor to develop an effective asthma control plan for your child. “There are very effective medications today that, in some cases, were not available even 10 to 20 years ago,” Moss says. Your baby or toddler may need to take daily medication; you may also need to keep an inhaler on hand to treat your child during asthma attacks. Finding the right combination of meds for your child takes some experimentation, so be patient. (The “right” combo may need to be adjusted as your child grows older too.)

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting asthma?

You may not be able to. “There’s not a lot of good evidence to suggest that avoiding specific triggers or trying some other preventive measures actually will prevent the development of asthma,” Moss says. But you don’t have to sit idly by while your child suffers. “Avoidance of triggers, such as cigarette smoke, or allergens, such as cat dander, will help reduce symptoms in children who are sensitive,” Moss says. So it’s worth it.

What do other moms do when their babies have asthma?

“[My daughter] had two colds and a cough that lasts a long time. This last time, they prescribed a breathing treatment twice a day until it stopped. Our pediatrician did ask if asthma runs in the family. She was adopted, and her birth mom does have asthma. The pediatrician told us they can’t diagnose asthma this young — not until, like two years or something — but they said there’s a chance that she does have it.”

“Juliana has had asthma and allergy problems since around four months. She got RSV, and after two weeks of having the RSV, her cough never went away. Her doctor noticed wheezing then, and she’s been on breathing treatments ever since. We do breathing treatments twice a day. [And the doctor has prescribed] an oral medicine to help with her asthma and allergies. We were told today that we need to come back after three weeks of using the oral medicine and her cough/wheezing should be all gone by then. If it’s not, then we need to see a specialist. I would love for her cough to finally clear up and her wheezing to go away.”

“[My son] got bronchitis a couple of months ago and we got a nebulizer. He hasn’t been diagnosed with asthma yet, but has really bad allergies and eczema, and the doctor said he wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up getting asthma, so we’re just keeping fingers crossed it doesn’t happen. I had asthma really bad as a baby and was hospitalized multiple times. They definitely take it more seriously these days.”

Are there any other resources for asthma in babies?

The Bump expert: Mark Moss, MD, pediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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