What an asthma attack looks like in a child

An asthma attack in a child can be scary. Wheezing — a whistling sound especially when exhaling — is the classic sign of an attack or flare up.

An asthma attack in a child can be scary. Wheezing — a whistling sound especially when exhaling — is the classic sign of an attack or flare-up.

Other common signs are coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. A child with asthma may only have some of these symptoms. If your child has been diagnosed with asthma, you should have an asthma action plan. Since every child’s asthma is different, your action plan is tailored to your child and organized in green, yellow or red zones based on the severity of the attack. To treat an asthma flare-up, you should use your quick-relief inhaler (i.e., albuterol) as directed by your doctor in your asthma action plan.

A severe asthma attack can be life-threatening. Some signs to look for are:

  • Trouble breathing even when sitting still
  • Difficulty speaking without pausing
  • Feeling tired or drowsy
  • Blueness around the gums, eyes and nail beds
  • Areas below the ribs, between the ribs and in the neck sink in or tug with each breath (“retractions”). A child’s nostrils may flare in and out as well with breathing.

“If a child begins to show signs of a severe asthma attack or enters the red ‘danger’ zone in their action plan, get emergency help or call 911,” said Ronald L. Morton, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist with Norton Children’s Pulmonology, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.

“If you suspect your child has asthma, but hasn’t been diagnosed, talk to your pediatrician. Kids with asthma can be active with proper care,” he said.

Avoiding asthma attacks in a child

  • Make sure your child takes the long-term control medicine as directed by their doctor — even when feeling well.
  • Make sure your child always has the prescribed medicines and takes them to school and on trips. You’ll also need to make sure that all caregivers know how to use these medications.
  • Be sure your child gets a flu shot every year.
  • Make sure to have regular doctor visits to monitor your child’s asthma, make sure it is under good control and update your child’s asthma action plan as needed.
  • Your doctor may do special “lung function” tests to see if your child’s asthma is under good control. These tests are painless and simple to do for most children.

Norton Children’s Prevention & Wellness’ Open Airways class is held monthly to provide information about asthma, including triggers, symptoms and how to detect early warning signs. Register for an upcoming class taught by a certified American Lung Association educator at NortonChildrens.com/Classes&Events.