What Is Asthma? Asthma is a condition that causes breathing problems. Kids may cough, wheeze, or be short of breath. This happens because airways in the lungs get swollen, smaller, and filled with mucus. Asthma is common in kids and teens, and tends to run in families. It can be mild or so severe that it gets in the way of daily activities. With medicine and the right care plan, asthma symptoms can be managed so that kids and teens can do just about anything they want to do. What Causes Asthma? No one knows exactly why some people develop asthma. Experts think it might be a combination of environmental factors and genes. People with asthma may have a parent or other close relative with asthma. Those who are overweight may be more likely to have it. How Asthma Affects Breathing In asthma, air doesn't move through the lungs the way it should. Normally, when someone breathes in, air goes in through the nose or mouth, down the windpipe (trachea), and into the airways (bronchioles) of the lungs. When people breathe out, air exits the body in the opposite direction. With asthma, air has a harder time passing through. Airways swell and fill with mucus. The muscles around the airways tighten, making airways narrower. Things that can irritate the airways are called "triggers." Common triggers include cigarette smoke, allergies, and exercise. Triggers can lead to asthma flare-ups or "attacks." What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Asthma? Asthma Flare-Ups Flare-ups are when asthma symptoms get worse. They happen when airways get more irritated and inflamed (swollen) than usual. During a flare-up, kids might have: trouble breathing a tight chest a whistling sound while breathing (wheezing) a cough a fast heartbeat Some flare-ups are serious, but others are mild. Flare-ups can happen suddenly or build up over time, especially if kids don't take their asthma medicines as directed. Things that bring on a flare-up are called triggers. Triggers vary from person to person, but common ones include: allergies to things like pollen, mold, and pet dander irritants and pollutants in the air respiratory infections, like colds or flu weather conditions exercise (some kids only have asthma symptoms during or after exercise) gastroesophageal reflux An important part of managing asthma is avoiding triggers. Your child's doctor will work with you to create a care plan that helps prevent flare-ups as much as possible. How Is Asthma Diagnosed? To diagnose asthma, doctors will ask questions about a child's health, problems with breathing, and family medical history. They'll also ask about any allergies, illnesses, and exposure to things that may make breathing worse. Kids will have a physical exam and may have a lung function test. This usually involves testing breathing with a spirometer, a machine that analyzes airflow through the airways. How Is Asthma Treated? There's no cure for asthma, but it can be managed to prevent flare-ups. Asthma treatment involves two important things: avoiding triggers and taking medicine. Avoiding Triggers There are many ways to avoid triggers. After your child's triggers are identified, the doctor will work with you to come up with a plan to avoid them. For example, if pet dander or mold in your home trigger your child's asthma symptoms, you can make your home asthma-safe by changing the linens often, vacuuming regularly, and keeping the family pet out of your child's bedroom. If outdoor allergies (like pollen) are a problem, your child should avoid the outdoors on days when pollen counts are high. If exercise is a trigger, the doctor may prescribe a medicine for your child to take before physical activity to prevent airways from tightening up. Doctors help people with exercise-induced asthma manage physical activity, not avoid it. Exercise can help people stay healthier overall (in fact, many pro athletes have asthma!). Getting a yearly flu shot is also important, as illnesses like the flu can trigger asthma flare-ups. Asthma Medicines Most asthma medicines are breathed directly into the lungs (inhaled), but some are pills or liquids. There are two types of asthma medicines: Quick-relief medicines act fast to open up tight airways. They can be used as needed during a flare-up. Quick-relief medicines act fast, but their effect doesn't last long. These kinds of medicines are also called "fast-acting" or "rescue" medicines. Long-term control medicines manage asthma by preventing symptoms from happening. They reduce inflammation in the airways, which is the cause of the swelling and mucus. (Quick-relief medicines only treat the symptoms caused by the inflammation.) Long-term control medicines — also called "controller" or "maintenance" medicines — must be taken every day, even when kids feel well. Some kids with asthma only need quick-relief medicine; others need both kinds of medicine to keep their asthma in check. What Else Should I Know? Asthma care can seem overwhelming, especially at first. But many tools are available to help you care for your child. An asthma action plan is a care plan that you'll develop with the doctor. The plan gives detailed instructions on how to manage asthma, including: what medicines your child needs and when what your child's triggers are and how to avoid them how to manage a flare-up when to get emergency medical care Following the plan can help your child do normal everyday activities without having asthma symptoms. Keeping an asthma diary is another way to help manage asthma. Tracking your child's symptoms and medicines will help you know when your child is more likely to have a flare-up. A peak-flow meter can help too. This handheld tool measures breathing ability. When peak flow readings drop, it's a sign of narrowing airways. By using these tools, giving medicines as prescribed, and avoiding triggers, you'll help keep your child healthy and breathing well. Back to Articles Related Articles Asthma Center Asthma keeps more kids home from school than any other chronic illness. Learn how to help your child manage the condition, stay healthy, and stay in school. Read More Managing Asthma Asthma control can take a little time and energy to master, but it's worth the effort. Learn more about ways to manage your child's asthma. Read More Asthma Triggers Triggers — things in the air, weather conditions, or activities — can cause asthma flare-ups. By knowing and avoiding triggers, you'll help lessen your child's asthma symptoms. Read More Asthma Action Plan Use this printable sheet to help reduce or prevent flare-ups and emergency department visits through day-to-day management of your child's asthma. Read More First Aid: Asthma Flare-Ups During a flare-up or attack, it's hard to breathe. While some flare-ups are mild, others can be life threatening, so it's important to deal with them right away. Read More When to Go to the ER if Your Child Has Asthma If your child has asthma, find out when you need to go to the ER. Read More Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Allergies don't cause asthma, but kids who have allergies are more likely to get asthma. Read More Asthma Center Visit our Asthma Center for information and advice on managing and living with asthma. Read More Asthma Center Asthma means breathing problems. Find out what's going on in the lungs and how to stay healthy, if you have it. Read More School and Asthma Lots of teens have asthma. Here are tips on keeping it under control so you can prevent (or manage) a flare-up at school. Read More Dealing With Asthma Triggers Find out what can make your asthma worse, and what to do about it. Read More Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Kids who have allergies also might have a breathing problem called asthma. Find out more in this article for kids. Read More Do Allergies Cause Asthma? Find out if allergies can make a person's asthma symptoms worse. Read More Asthma-Safe Homes Here's steps to remove or minimize triggers at home that cause asthma flare-ups. Read More How Can I Deal With My Asthma? Asthma is more common these days than it used to be. The good news is it's also a lot easier to manage and control. Read More How Do Asthma Medicines Work? Two different types of medicines are used to treat asthma: long-term control medicines and quick-relief medicines. Read about how they work, and why people might need to take them. Read More Allergies Your eyes itch, your nose is running, you're sneezing, and you're covered in hives. The enemy known as allergies has struck again. Read More Asthma Action Plan When things are confusing, a plan really helps. Check out this asthma action plan, which you can print out and use to manage breathing trouble. Read More Dealing With Asthma Triggers If you have asthma, certain things may cause you to cough and have trouble breathing. Find out more about asthma triggers in this article for kids. Read More Handling an Asthma Flare-Up How can you prepare for an asthma flare-up? Find out in this article for kids. Read More How Do Asthma Medicines Work? Kids who have asthma need to take medicine. But what kind of medicine do they take and what does it do? Let's find out. Read More School and Asthma If you have asthma, you need to know how to handle it at school. Find out more in this article for kids. Read More Allergy Shots Many kids battle allergies year-round, and some can't control their symptoms with medications. For them, allergy shots (or allergen immunotherapy) can help. Read More Asthma Asthma makes it hard to breathe. Find out more in this article for kids. Read More Asthma Asthma is a lung condition that makes it hard to breathe. Learn all about asthma here. Read More Asthma Action Plan Use this printable sheet to help manage your asthma. Read More Dealing With an Asthma Flare-Up Asthma flare-ups, or attacks, can be handled, but it's even better if you can prevent them from happening. Find out how to deal with flare-ups. Read More 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.