a mama squirrel looks anxiously over her sleeping baby squirrel

Asthma in Infants

Asthma is one of the most common chronic conditions in children, affecting over 6 million kids in the U.S.1 But while asthma symptoms are recognizable in older children and adults, it’s also possible for infants and toddlers to develop the respiratory condition.

Asthma can be tricky to differentiate from other respiratory illnesses, but knowing how asthma presents and the risk factors that can increase the onset of asthma in infants can help new parents navigate their baby’s health.

How does asthma present in infants vs children or adults?

The symptoms of asthma tend to look the same in infants, children, and adults, but the biggest difference between infant and child asthma is the severity. Since the airways in infants and children are so much smaller than the airways of adults, what would be considered a mild bronchial swelling in older children and adults can quickly become an emergency situation for a baby or a child under 5 years old.1

What symptoms do infants experience?

The symptoms can include:1

  • Working hard to breathe, such as flaring the nostrils, sucking in air above and between the ribs and sternum, or exaggerated belly movement
  • Breathing fast
  • Wheezing, which can sound like a whistling noise as the child breathes
  • Panting during normal activities, such as casual playing
  • Having difficulty while sucking or eating
  • A persistent cough
  • Showing fatigue or disinterest in normal or favorite activities
  • Showing a very pale or blue color in the face, fingers, and/or lips

Respiratory infections are often the first trigger in infants that can cause an asthmatic episode, and those asthma symptoms can persist even after the infection has cleared.1

Risk factors for asthma in infants

Although no direct cause has been found for why some infants develop asthma and others do not, there are a few risk factors that are thought to increase the likelihood of infant asthma such as:1,2

  • Having breathing problems that are triggered by certain foods or allergies
  • A family history of asthma or allergies
  • Observed breathing patterns in the child at nighttime vs daytime, at play and at rest, and other breathing behavior that appears abnormal
  • Mothers who smoke during pregnancy

Asthma in infants can be tricky to diagnose because there are a number of reasons why a baby might be fussy, and children at that age are not able to verbalize what’s going with their bodies.

Asthma symptoms can look like other infant illnesses

Additionally, asthma symptoms can also look like symptoms of other infant illnesses including:2

Lung function testing can also be challenging with small children and babies, but there are a variety of other x-rays, tests, and medications that health professionals can use to rule out other health conditions and diagnose asthma.2

How is infant asthma treated?

Having a baby with a chronic respiratory condition can be scary, but luckily, there are plenty of treatment options. Most asthma medications for adults can also be used for babies and small children, just at lower doses. The way that the child takes the medication, such as fast-acting inhaled medication, may be different than the adult version and produce fewer side effects.2

Since each child has their own specific triggers and responses to medication, their individual treatment plan may include a combination of different medications including:1,2

  • Inhaled or liquid medication
  • An inhaler
  • A nebulizer machine

Once the right combination of medications and behavior changes are implemented, asthma in infants can be controlled with long-term success, and symptoms and treatment methods can be evaluated and adjusted as necessary as the child grows.1

My experience with asthma treatment

In my own experience with infant asthma, I was diagnosed as a baby after showing symptoms, and my treatments have evolved over time from liquid medication to a nebulizer to a long-term plan with both maintenance and rescue inhalers. The good news is asthma has a wide variety of treatment options, and it is possible for infants and small children to lead active, happy lives while managing asthma symptoms.

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