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Asthma Symptoms in Kids

Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood, affecting more than 6 million kids in the United States. Asthma symptoms and severity can change throughout childhood and into adulthood. Asthma symptoms in kids may also be very different from those in adults. Although asthma is a chronic disease, there are times when it can go into remission or even resolve completely.1

Knowing the common symptoms of asthma in kids and how they can change over time can help you and your child get the right medical care as soon as possible.

Asthma symptoms in early childhood (ages 0 to 6)

Most kids with asthma develop symptoms before the age of 5. Research shows that 80 percent of cases start before the age of 6. The bronchial tubes (the airways that allow air to go in and out of the lungs) are very small and narrow in kids. Colds and illnesses can inflame these airways, causing confusion about whether the resulting symptoms are asthma or not.1,2

The main symptoms of asthma in early childhood may include:1,2

  • Cough (can be dry or wet/produces mucus)
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing or fast breathing
  • Frequent colds that settle in the chest
  • Whistling sound when breathing out

To determine whether the symptoms are a result of asthma, your child’s doctor will do a medical exam. They will also perform a test that measures airflow in and out of the lungs. This is known as a spirometry test.2

Asthma in late childhood (ages 7 to 11)

As kids get older, asthma symptoms change from distinct episodes of wheezing caused by viral infections to more instances of symptoms triggered by an allergic reaction.1

Exercise-induced reactions are also more noticeable in this age group. This may be due to changes in the condition over time. It could also be because sports become a more popular activity during late childhood, and caregivers are more likely to recognize the asthma symptoms resulting from exertion.1

In some cases, kids in late childhood will rarely have everyday asthma symptoms but will have severe reactions to triggers like cold weather, cigarette smoke, or seasonal allergies. Asthma attacks triggered by viral infections are less likely in this age group than in younger children.1

Asthma in teens

Puberty interacts with asthma in a variety of ways. Before puberty, boys are more likely to be at risk for asthma than girls. During puberty, the risk is equal. However, after puberty, girls have a higher risk of asthma than boys. This may be related to airway size, effects of hormones, genetics, immune response, and health-seeking behaviors.1

In teens, asthma symptoms typically include:1

  • Shortness of breath with exertion
  • Wheezing typically caused by triggers
  • Chest pain and/or tightness
  • Cough

Asthma symptoms can cause problems with sleep, sports involvement, social interactions, and school. Teens may be embarrassed about their symptoms or about using an inhaler. This can lead to them ignoring symptoms and not using treatments as prescribed.1

Asthma remission is also common in teens, especially in those who have had mild asthma in the past, minor airway inflammation, and no allergic sensitization. Boys are more likely to experience remission than girls.1

Differences between kids and adults

Although asthma is typically thought of as a childhood disease, nearly half of adults with asthma develop the condition during adulthood. It is a common adult condition, and more doctors are considering the term “asthma” to include a variety of symptoms.1

Common asthma symptoms in adults include:1

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Cough

There are also different kinds of asthma. They can include the symptoms listed above, along with thick mucus or nasal polyps and aspirin sensitivity. Studies show that obesity, smoking, and lower socioeconomic status can make asthma symptoms worse in adults.1

In adults, asthma remission is uncommon. Plus, asthma in adults is usually more severe and progressive (gets worse) than in children.1

Things to consider

If you notice symptoms in your child that could be signs of asthma, talk with your child’s doctor. They can do an exam and perform tests to make sure your child gets the right diagnosis and treatment. It might help to keep a symptom log with the symptoms your child experiences, possible triggers or what your child was doing when symptoms appeared, and what helped to improve the symptoms.

Together, you and your child’s doctor can develop the right treatment plan for your child.

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