What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a health problem that makes it hard to breathe. This happens because airways in the lungs swell up, fill with mucus, and get smaller. Some people say having asthma feels like breathing through a straw.

If you have asthma, you're not alone. Lots of kids have it — and lots take medicine to help them breathe better. With the right medicine and care plan, asthma won't slow you down.

What Causes Asthma?

No one really knows why kids get asthma. Asthma tends to run in families, though. That means if a kid has asthma, he or she might have a parent, sibling, or other relative who has asthma or had it as a kid.

What Happens in Asthma?

You take thousands of breaths every day. Normally, when you breathe in, air enters your nose or mouth and then goes to the windpipe, also called the trachea (say: TRAY-kee-uh). From there, the air travels into the lungs through breathing tubes. The whole process goes in reverse when you exhale.

With asthma, breathing gets harder because airways narrow, swell, and fill with mucus. This makes it tough for air to pass through. 

What's an Asthma Flare-up?

Asthma doesn't make your breathing harder all the time — just sometimes. This happens because the airways get more irritated than normal. When this happens, it's called an asthma "flare-up" or "attack."

You'll know you're having a flare-up if you:

  • have a whistling sound when breathing (this is called wheezing)
  • cough a lot
  • have a tight or painful feeling in the chest

Flare-ups also can make you sweat or feel like your heart is beating faster than normal, even while sitting still.

An asthma flare-up can get worse if a kid doesn't use his or her asthma medicine as directed.

What Causes an Asthma Flare-Up?

Things that can cause you to have an asthma flare-up are called "triggers." Different kids have different triggers. Common triggers include:

  • breathing in things that cause allergies (called allergens), such as dust, pollen, dander from animals, and mold
  • breathing in things that irritate your airways, like cigarette smoke, perfume, and chalk dust
  • infections, like a cold or the flu
  • exercising
  • breathing in cold air

How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you have asthma, you'll have to get checked out. One test that helps doctors diagnose asthma is spirometry. A spirometer is a device that measures how well your lungs work. It's as easy as blowing out your birthday candles!

How Is Asthma Treated?

Caring for your asthma means doing two things: avoiding things that cause flare-ups and taking medicines if your doctor prescribes them.

Avoiding Triggers

Once you know what your triggers are, you and your parents can take steps to avoid them. Here are some ideas:

  • Change your sheets and vacuum often to rid your home of dust.
  • Keep your pet out of your bedroom if you're allergic to pet dander.
  • Stay inside on days when pollen counts are high (ask your parents to check the local weather report).

If exercise makes your asthma worse, the doctor may prescribe a medicine to take before exercising to prevent your airways from tightening up.

Taking Medicines

It's not always possible to avoid triggers, so most kids who have asthma also take medicine.

Not every kid's asthma is the same. That's why there are different kinds of medicines for treating it:

  • One kind is called quick-relief medicine (also called rescue or fast-acting medicine). It works fast to help open a kid's airways so he or she can breathe again.
  • The other kind is called long-term control medicine (also called controller or maintenance medicine). It's a daily medicine that helps keep flare-ups from happening.

You should take your medicine as directed by your doctor. If you don't, your asthma could get worse and you might even end up in the hospital.

You doctor will create a special plan for dealing with your asthma. This is called an asthma action plan, and should be given to everyone who cares for you, including teachers and camp counselors.

Using an Inhaler

Most asthma medicines need to be breathed in, and an inhaler (say: in-HAY-lur) helps get medicine into the lungs. 

One type of inhaler has a plastic tube that holds the asthma medicine. When you press on the tube, a puff of medicine sprays out for you to breathe in.

Using a Spacer

Using an inhaler like this can be tricky, so a spacer helps. It attaches to the inhaler and holds the mist of medicine in one place (between the inhaler and your mouth). A spacer lets you breathe in when you're ready, so it's easier to inhale all the medicine into your lungs.

Another type of inhaler contains powdered medicine inside, which needs to be breathed in quickly and deeply, and doesn't need a spacer.

Using a Nebulizer

A different way to take asthma medicine is by using a machine called a nebulizer. This machine turns liquid medicine into a mist for you to breathe in.

Does Asthma Ever Go Away?

Yup! A lot of kids find their asthma goes away or becomes less serious as they get older. Some doctors think this happens because the airways grow wider as a kid grows up and gets bigger. With more room in the airways, the air has an easier time getting in and out.

Some people do have asthma as adults, but it doesn't have to slow them down. Some top athletes manage their asthma while still competing at professional and Olympic levels.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.