Although childhood asthma is one of the most common chronic (ongoing) illnesses in children, there are treatment options that can help your child live a healthier life. Proper asthma treatments are essential to control asthma symptoms and prevent asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and hospital stays.
Asthma occurs when a person experiences airway inflammation, typically caused by exposure to specific triggers. The severity of asthma is classified based on how frequently symptoms occur and how much they limit physical activity. Additionally, lung function testing can be used to assess severity. Lung function can be tested in a doctor’s office through spirometry or at home with a peak flow meter. The latter measures peak expiratory flow rate, the amount and speed at which air exits the lungs with forceful exhalation.
Symptoms of asthma include:
In moderate persistent asthma and severe persistent asthma, asthma symptoms occur every day and often at night. They can cause reduced lung function and limit a person’s physical activity. Asthma symptoms can interfere with your child’s school day. Read how to prepare your child to return to the classroom after an asthma diagnosis.
The two main treatments for the management of asthma are inhaled corticosteroids, which control symptoms long term, and quick-relief inhaled bronchodilators used to treat acute (sudden) asthma attacks. Additional treatments may be added to inhaled corticosteroid treatment for more severe asthma, including:
Asthma medications can be administered in several different ways, including inhalers and nebulizers, as well as pills, syrups, and injections.
Controller medication or maintenance therapy for asthma is intended to prevent symptoms and reduce the need for quick-relief medications. Inhaled corticosteroids fight inflammation and reduce mucus in the lungs. Depending on asthma severity, corticosteroids may be given at a low dose or a high dose. Types of corticosteroids include mometasone (Asmanex), fluticasone (Flovent), and budesonide (Pulmicort). In order to work properly, inhaled corticosteroids must be taken every day as prescribed.
Corticosteroids can also be combined with long-acting beta-agonists — bronchodilators that are similar to rescue inhalers but work for a longer period of time. These combination medications are typically used when steroids alone cannot control symptoms. Using these two medications in combination can sometimes decrease the amount of inhaled corticosteroid needed to control asthma symptoms. Examples include fluticasone/salmeterol (Advair Diskus), fluticasone/vilanterol (Breo Ellipta), and budesonide/formoterol (Symbicort).
Oral corticosteroids, available in pill form or as a syrup for very young children, also have a role in asthma treatment. A short course of oral steroids may be given at the start of treatment to help bring asthma symptoms under control. Oral steroids may also be used to treat severe asthma episodes. Daily oral steroid treatment should be avoided due to side effects from chronic steroid use but may be needed in rare cases for severe asthma that is difficult to control.
Bronchodilators treat asthma by opening up the airways in the lungs. There are several different types of bronchodilators used to treat asthma. Short-acting beta-agonists, such as albuterol (Proventil), are used as quick-relief medicines to treat acute asthma symptoms. They may also be used before exercise to prevent asthma symptoms.
Albuterol is a rescue medication, intended for use only as needed. Frequently needing to use albuterol can be an indication that a person’s asthma is not well controlled.
Long-acting beta-agonists can be used as an add-on medication to inhaled steroids for long-term control of asthma. There are several combination inhalers that combine a corticosteroid with a long-acting beta-agonist.
Leukotriene modifiers are drugs that block the action of leukotrienes — inflammatory molecules that are involved in causing asthma symptoms. These drugs, such as montelukast (Singulair), come in pill form and are taken every day for long-term asthma control.
Biologics are human-made from biological molecules, such as antibodies. They can be used with inhaled corticosteroids to help treat moderate to severe asthma. Most biologics are given as injections, either at home or in the doctor’s office. Biologic medications often require special approval from insurance companies because they are very expensive. Examples include omalizumab (Xolair), benralizumab (Fasenra), and dupilumab (Dupixent).
Allergic asthma is the most common type of childhood asthma. Children with allergies may require additional oral and/or nasal allergy medications. They also may need allergy immunotherapy (known as “allergy shots”) to treat specific allergies.
Medications can help keep asthma symptoms under control, but it is also important to identify and eliminate asthma triggers and allergens.
Common asthma triggers and irritants include:
Asthma can also be triggered by exercise, stress, breathing cold air, or viral infections. Other risk factors may include exposure to allergens such as foods, pollen, and other environmental allergens, such as dust. It may be necessary to change certain habits in order to avoid asthma triggers.
Moderate to severe asthma can be difficult to treat. Your child’s doctor may need to add one or more long-term medications to achieve and maintain adequate asthma control.
You may need to be patient and experience ineffective treatments until an effective combination of therapies is found. Work closely with your child’s doctor to find what works. Report symptoms and side effects to your child’s health care team, and make sure that medications are administered properly before changing treatment.
It may take time to get severe asthma under control, but there are many treatment options to try, so don’t lose hope.
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