Updated 14 September 2017

Does my child have asthma?

Diagnosing asthma in young children can be challenging as they are unable to tell you what is wrong.

Adults usually know when something is wrong with their bodies. And if you’re asthmatic, you'll know when you’re having an attack – your chest starts to tighten, you begin to wheeze and you're short of breath.  

However, toddlers and young children struggle to communicate this to their parents. So how do you know when your child has asthma

Time to take note

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), you should make a note of the following and speak to your doctor if you’re concerned your child may have asthma:  

  • Do you have a family history of asthma or allergies?
  • Have you noticed any breathing symptom patterns? Check nighttime versus daytime breathing; activity versus rest; difficulty breathing out versus in; if they have any unusual response to medications. “This is important and diagnosis depends strongly on parents taking note of these kinds of symptoms,” says Dr Shirani Naidoo of the University of Cape Town.
  • Does your child have any allergies? “A young child with a food allergy and asthma must be assessed and well managed,” says Dr Naidoo. 

WHO, asthma, pull out quote

If your child is susceptible to asthma, the AAFA says you should take note of these warning signs:

  • Any fast or noisy breathing.
  • Your child is visibly working harder to breathe – exaggerated belly or chest movement, flaring nostrils.
  • Wheezing or panting with normal activities like playing.
  • A persistent cough.
  • Difficulty sucking or eating, and drinking only small amounts at a time.
  • Tiredness or disinterest in their normal or favourite activities.
  • Pale or blue colouring in their face and/or fingers is a sign of an emergency. “You need to seek immediate medical assistance,” says Dr Naidoo. 

How to check breathing rates

Newborns take more breaths per minute compared to a two year old. The average healthy adult takes between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. 

asthma, babies, breathing rates, infographic

It might not be asthma

Asthma symptoms can mimic symptoms of a number of other illnesses or diseases. These include:

  • Acid reflux or aspiration
  • Birth defects
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Croup
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Inhaled object
  • Pneumonia
  • Upper respiratory tract infections (usually viral)

The challenges of childhood asthma

“The biggest challenge is that the asthma medication is usually inhaled, which is nearly impossible for a toddler,” explains Dr Naidoo. She says you will need to use a spacer device that helps get the medication to the small airways where the swelling is.

“Young children are vulnerable because they can’t communicate their symptoms well. There are also a number of other illnesses that mimic asthma, which makes diagnosis challenging. However all major asthma medications are available for all ages and asthma in toddlers can be completely controlled.”

Image credit: iStock


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Asthma Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received of several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others.Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute

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