By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Asthma is the most common serious chronic disease of childhood, affecting nearly five million children in the United States. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by an obstruction of airflow, which may be completely or partially reversed with or without specific therapy. The mucous membranes in the small branches of the airways (bronchi) swell up; consequently the circular muscles contract. More mucus is produced in the already restricted airways, which makes breathing a struggle. This usually produces a wheezing sound when breathing out.

Up to 80% of children with asthma develop symptoms before age five. Following are some of the symptoms of asthma:

  • A wheezing sound when exhaling
  • Prolonged coughing without a cold
  • Fast breathing or panting without exercise or any physical exertion
  • Irregular breathing patterns
  • Recurrent colds from which it takes a long time to recover
  • Flaring of the nostrils as the child attempts to get more air
  • Noisy and/or difficult breathing
  • Unexplained fatigue or inactiveness
  • Areas or spaces in the ribs that sink in as the child inhales
  • Sometimes a child might feel like air is trapped in his/her lungs and he/she can't get it out

Chronic asthma is the most frequent long-term children's disease. About 1 to 2 per cent of all children get chronic asthma during their childhood. Approximately 15 to 20 per cent of all children will have symptoms of wheeze without having chronic asthma.

For children, asthma symptoms can hold up many school and extracurricular activities. Parents may notice their child has less energy during play than his or her peers, or they may notice the child trying to limit or avoid physical activities to prevent coughing or wheezing.

There is no cure for asthma, but with the right management, your Pediatrician can help to get your child's asthma under control, minimize symptoms, avoid missed days from school, and avoid visits to the emergency room or hospitalizations. With good control, your child's asthma should not limit his activities or slow him down and he should be able to participate in physical activities and sports and keep up with the other children.

As part of an effective asthma management plan, the child's physician may prescribe specific medications and devices. These can include a peak flow meter to measure ease of breathing, metered dose inhalers, spacers that attach to inhalers, nebulizer that deliver medication in a mist, dry powder inhalers, or oral (tablet) medications. The physician should not only prescribe these medications and devices, but should teach children and parents how to use them correctly.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,