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Health > Kids > Kids asthma

Kids asthma

Asthma is a condition that affects a person's airways, which are also called breathing tubes or bronchial tubes. These tubes lead from the windpipe, or trachea into the lungs. For most kids, breathing is simple: They breathe in through their noses or mouths and the air goes into the windpipe. From there, it travels through the airways and into the lungs. But for kids with asthma, breathing can be a lot more difficult because their airways are very sensitive.

An asthma flare-up, which some people call an asthma attack, happens when a person's airways get narrower and it becomes a lot harder for air to get in and out of the lungs. Sometimes the swollen airways produce extra mucus, which makes things pretty sticky, so it's easy to see why it's hard to breathe.

In between flare-ups, a kid's breathing can be totally normal or seem that way. But during a flare-up, it can feel like the person is breathing through a straw. A kid with asthma may wheeze (a whistling sound when he or she breathes), cough, and feel tightness in the chest. An asthma flare-up can get worse and worse if a kid doesn't use asthma medicine. After an asthma flare-up, the airways almost always return to the way they were before, although it can take several days.

Who Gets Asthma?

Asthma is more common than you might think. As many as 5 million kids in the United States have it. Asthma affects about one or two kids out of 10. That means if you have 20 kids in your class, two to four of them might have asthma. Asthma can start at any age - even in a little baby or an adult - but it's most common in school-age kids.

No one really knows why one person's airways are more sensitive than another person's, but we do know that asthma runs in families. That means if a kid has asthma, he or she may also have a parent, sibling, uncle, or other relative who has asthma or had it as a child.

Asthma flare-ups may sound a little like a cold, with coughing and wheezing, but asthma isn't contagious. You can't catch it from someone like you can catch a cold.

What Causes an Asthma Flare-Up?

Different kids have different triggers - things that set off asthma flare-ups. There are a lot of triggers. Some kids are sensitive to allergens substances that cause allergic reactions in the airways. Common allergens for kids with asthma include dust mites (tiny bugs that live in dust), mold (if you've ever been in a damp basement and smelled something funny, it was probably mold), and pollen (from trees, grass, and weeds).

A lot of kids have asthma flare-ups when they are near furry animals. Cats and dogs both have what's called animal dander in their fur. This is sort of like dandruff, and it's a trigger that can cause a powerful reaction in the airways.

Some substances can trigger flare-ups because they really irritate the airways and can act just like allergens. These include perfume, chalk dust, and cigarette smoke. Smoking is always a bad idea, especially around someone who has asthma.

Sometimes an infection can be a trigger and set off an asthma flare-up. If a kid comes down with a cold or the flu, his or her airways may become more sensitive than usual. In some kids, cold air itself can cause an asthma flare-up, and so can exercise. In fact, some kids have what's called exercise-induced asthma. This means they have breathing problems only when they exercise.

How Is Asthma Treated?

Kids who have asthma should try to avoid things that can cause their airways to tighten. But some triggers - like cats, colds, and chalk dust - can't always be avoided. That's why kids who are sensitive to those things must manage their asthma by taking medication.

Not every kid's asthma is the same, so there are different medicines for treating it. It's not like curing a sore throat or an earache, when everybody gets the same medicine. Instead, the doctor will think about what causes the asthma flare-ups, how fast the flare-ups happen, and how serious they are. Then he or she will decide on the best kind of treatment.

Some kids need to take asthma medication only once in a while, when they have a flare-up. This is called rescue medicine because it works fast to open the airways, so the person can breathe. Other kids may need to take controller medicine every day. Controller medicine works to keep flare-ups from happening.

A kid who knows in advance that he or she will be around allergens or other triggers may need to take a different kind of medication that will keep the airways open. And kids who have exercise-induced asthma can take medication ahead of time so they'll be able to finish all their laps around the track. Whatever their triggers are, kids who have asthma can use a peak flow meter to get an idea of how well they are breathing that day and whether they need to take any medicine.

Asthma medicine often is taken through an inhaler. An inhaler is a plastic tube that holds a container of medicine. You may have seen a friend or someone in school using an inhaler, which is held up to the mouth. A kid holds the inhaler up to his or her mouth and breathes in. The medicine comes out in a mist that goes into the lungs. The medicine in the mist relaxes the airways, so the person can breathe easier

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