Sign up for this email series:
Article written by
Medically reviewed by
Asthma is a very common chronic disease that affects 1 in 12 children under the age of 17 in the United States. Asthma attacks are caused by inflammation in your airway — usually from an allergen or irritant — resulting in swelling, chest tightness, and narrowing of the airway. Asthma attacks leave you struggling to breathe and can be life-threatening if left untreated.
For a parent, watching your baby struggle to breathe can be both frightening and upsetting. Fortunately, many treatments are available to relieve your child’s asthma symptoms.
Asthma is a disease of the airway, so the condition’s most common symptoms involve trouble with breathing, shortness of breath, and getting enough oxygen. Babies and young children have difficulty communicating how they feel, so you need to look for visual clues that a child is struggling to breathe.
Asthma doctors list the following symptoms as warning signs that your baby may be having breathing problems:
Asthma and breathing problems in infants can be especially dangerous because of their lung size. The tiny airways can get blocked by even small amounts of mucous, leaving babies more vulnerable to lung failure.
Be on the alert. If you notice any of the above breathing symptoms, seek medical care from an emergency room or pediatrician right away. For babies, breathing difficulties can escalate from a few symptoms to a severe asthma attack in a matter of minutes. However, with prompt treatment, asthma attacks are controllable.
Although the exact causes of asthma are currently unknown, respiratory infections are the most common triggers of asthma symptoms in small children. Since infants have much smaller lungs and airways than adults, they are more prone to mucus blockages or inflammation, leading to an asthma attack. A family history of asthma, allergies, or eczema increases a child’s risk of getting asthma.
Medical research has shown a number of risk factors (also known as triggers) that can induce asthma symptoms in babies, children, and adults.
Knowing what triggers asthma symptoms in your child is important, so you can eliminate, or minimize their exposure. “I was born with asthma,” said a MyAsthmaTeam member. “I have been dealing with it all my life. I’m always cautious of the things I do and eat that can trigger an attack.”
The following are some of the most common triggers of asthma in babies.
Allergens found in the environment can trigger inflammation in airways and cause asthma symptoms. Risk factors in the environment can include:
Your child may develop other health conditions that can trigger asthma symptoms and cause breathing difficulties, including:
Babies use crying, laughing, facial expressions, and body movement to express their needs and emotions. Excessive crying or even common breathing changes from anger, fear, or excitement can trigger asthma in some infants and children.
Typically, a doctor will diagnose asthma in older children and adults by:
Diagnosing asthma in infants is a little different. Children younger than 5 are usually not given a lung function (or breathing) test. Instead, a doctor will conduct a physical exam and review the child’s family and medical history.
If an infant is experiencing breathing problems, a doctor may give them medications with Albuterol or Levalbuterol, which helps relax the airway. If the medication causes the breathing to improve, the child may have asthma.
Many other health conditions — including bronchitis, croup, acid reflux, and pneumonia — have the same symptoms as asthma, which can make diagnosis tricky. Before rendering a diagnosis, an asthma specialist will usually wait for the child to have a few episodes of wheezing with illnesses or to exhibit persistent symptoms when they are not sick.
“My son was diagnosed with bronchitis when he was 2 months old,” a MyAsthmaTeam member explained. “We were in and out of the hospital three times a year. He is now 3, and they are finally calling it asthma.”
It’s possible for an infant to outgrow asthma as their lungs mature and they build tolerance to inflammation and irritants. Approximately 50 percent of children outgrow their asthma symptoms when they reach their teens; however, it can return when they are adults.
Infants can take the same types of asthma medications as children and adults. However, they are administered at a lower dose, either using a nebulizer (breathing machine) or in liquid form. There are several common treatments, both fast-acting (for immediate relief) and for long-term control
Fast-acting medication will help your child through the acute phase of an asthma attack. However, a doctor may prescribe a daily medication to help control your child’s asthma symptoms for the long term.
Here are some common daily medications for infants:
If your infant is diagnosed with asthma, the doctor or pediatrician should create an asthma action plan to help you manage your child’s asthma at home. The plan provides a clear, easy-to-read template that outlines exactly what medications and actions to take when your child presents certain asthma symptoms.
You should consider sharing the asthma action plan with friends, family members, and child care workers so they have guidance to follow should an emergency occur in your absence. When your child enters a school setting, the action plan can function as an emergency-response plan for teachers to follow in case of an asthma attack at school.
Caring for an infant with asthma can be scary, exhausting, and worrisome. However, creating a management plan with your doctor and sticking to it can help reduce that stress and anxiety. The following are some useful asthma management tips:
As you are navigating your infant’s asthma diagnosis, you are not alone. By joining MyAsthmaTeam — the social network people with asthma and their loved ones — you gain a community of members who share encouragement and reassurance. Members offer support and tips to overcome barriers to treatment and can be a safe sounding board to express your feelings, triumphs, and frustrations.
Do you have an infant or young child diagnosed with asthma? Share your experiences below in the comments or post on MyAsthmaTeam. Your story could help someone facing the same challenges.