A Guide to Parenting a Child With Asthma
As an RN and a grown woman who has had asthma since I was two, I know a thing or two about caring for children with asthma. Not only have I been professionally trained, but I have lived the life of an asthmatic child.
As a grown woman, I now have a three and a half-year-old son. Luckily, he doesn’t have asthma – yet. I say yet because I have asthma, and so does my husband, his father. This is not a guarantee, but the odds are stacked against him. He does, however, have food allergies that require close monitoring – something that can be applied to care of the child with any chronic disease.
So, parents – let’s talk about what causes childhood asthma. Then, let’s talk about some practical tips for caring for a child with asthma.
What Causes Childhood Asthma?
According to Mayo Clinic, the exact cause of childhood asthma is often difficult to pinpoint. An overly sensitive immune system is typically the culprit. The overly sensitive immune system gets “turned on” and causes the lungs and airways to swell, producing excess mucus when the child is exposed to specific triggers.
Each child has different triggers which exacerbate their asthma symptoms. The issue is that sometimes, the reaction is delayed – meaning that exposure may have happened several hours prior, making it difficult to pinpoint what caused the reaction.
Triggers may include:
- Viruses (for example, the common cold)
- Air pollution, such as secondhand smoke
- Weather changes (extreme heat or extreme cold)
- Allergens (for example, dust, animals, pollen)
- Physical activity
Who Is at Risk for Developing Childhood Asthma?
So, now that you know what may trigger an asthma attack, and that asthma occurs due to an overly heightened immune system, what are the risk factors that may cause the immune system to become excessively heightened?
- Exposure to smoke (both a trigger AND a risk factor – the proverbial double whammy!)
- Having a family history of asthma, hives, eczema, and/or allergic rhinitis
- Having had previous allergic reactions; this may include dermatitis reactions, food allergies, or environmental allergies
- Living in an area with poor air quality
- Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Being obese
- Having certain respiratory conditions already, such as a chronic stuffy nose, a history of pneumonia, and/or sinusitis
You may be thinking, “Wow – this is a long list of risk factors. My child is doomed.” Not necessarily. Just because your child has risk factors does not mean that they will have asthma. Remember, their immune system must be “turned on” to develop asthma.
Asthma is also challenging because sometimes, children remain undiagnosed, especially when they are very young. Asthma can be difficult to diagnose because there is no “gold standard” that provides a complete diagnosis. A pulmonary function test is often ordered because it can help to determine how much airflow is in the lungs, but this test is tough to obtain in children younger than five.
So, now that you know a little bit about what may cause childhood asthma, here are some tips for parenting a child with asthma.
Know the Difference between Asthma Symptoms and Cold Symptoms
It can be confusing, differentiating between the common cold and asthma symptoms. This especially gets confusing initially after diagnosis, or when you’re awaiting a diagnosis.
It can get confusing because sometimes a cold can exacerbate asthma – meaning that occasionally your child will have both a cold and an asthma exacerbation!
The real difference between a cold and asthma is where it affects the lungs. A cold is caused by a virus. This virus, although annoying, typically affects the nose and the throat – the upper airway. Asthma affects the lungs – the lower airway.
WebMD notes that when asthma flares, the following three changes begin to happen in the lungs:
- Bronchospasm: the airways begin to tighten and narrow.
- Inflammation: the lining of the airways becomes swollen.
- Mucus production: the cells lining the airways begin to produce excess mucus.
The combination of these three things happening causes the asthma exacerbation.
Asthma symptoms during an exacerbation are caused by this “trifecta” and include:
- Wheezing of the lungs
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty performing activities, as a result of the symptoms mentioned above
Asthma can also cause day-to-day symptoms, and these symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath (although less severe than during an asthma exacerbation)
- Frequent coughing
- Chest tightness
The daily symptoms of asthma are why asthma and colds can often be confused. For example, a typical cold doesn’t cause coughing as a direct result of the actual virus, but the drainage from the cold can cause postnasal drip that may cause the person to cough.
Symptoms of colds include:
- A sore throat, often the initial symptom
- Clear, watery nasal drainage
- A low-grade fever
- Postnasal drip that may cause the person to cough
The symptoms of a cold typically are not worse than this; if the symptoms worsen, you may have a more serious bacterial infection. It is also important to note that green drainage from the nose does not always indicate a bacterial infection, as was previously the school of thought.
If you have asthma, getting a cold can undoubtedly irritate the lungs – mainly due to postnasal drip. It is important to try to prevent infection from occurring in the first place.
Get Vaccines as Indicated
Unless contraindicated, getting a yearly flu vaccine can prevent asthma exacerbations. Like the common cold, getting the flu can worsen asthma symptoms.
The flu vaccine must be obtained yearly as the vaccine changes each flu season. The CDC changes it each season in anticipation for what strains of the flu they believe will be particularly virulent.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology also recommends that anyone with asthma, between the ages of 19 and 64, receive the pneumococcal vaccine. The pneumococcal vaccine provides immunity against various strains of bacterial pneumonia, as people with asthma are more likely to develop pneumonia. Infants already get a pneumonia vaccine (PCV13) in a series of four injections.