Conditions & Treatments

Asthma and Children

Approximately 6.5 million children have been diagnosed with asthma according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Asthma is one of the most common, serious, chronic diseases among children, accounting for 14 million absences from school each year.

Your Child's Asthma

What causes childhood asthma?

Researchers continue to learn what causes asthma. It is not entirely understood. The following things play a part:

  • Genetics. Asthma runs in families.

  • Allergies. Some allergies are more common in people with asthma. And, allergies also tend to run in families.

  • Respiratory infections. Infants and young children who have some respiratory infections are more likely to have long-term lung problems.

  • Environmental factors. Irritants, like pollution and allergens, are known to cause asthma.

What causes asthma symptoms to worsen (flare-ups)? 

Triggers  are those things that cause asthma symptoms to get worse or asthma flare-ups.  Each child has different triggers. A very important part of asthma management is identifying and then trying to avoid triggers. Asthma triggers include:

  • Allergens, such as pollen, dust, and pets

  • Upper respiratory infections, such as colds or the flu.

  • Inhaled irritants, such as secondhand smoke.

  • Certain weather conditions, such as cold air.

  • Exercise or physical activity.

  • Physical expressions of emotion, such as crying, laughing, or yelling.

Do children outgrow asthma?

How asthma will affect a child throughout his or her lifetime varies.

  • Many infants and toddlers may wheeze when sick with a viral illness, such as cold or flu. However, most of these children don't get asthma later in life.

  • Some children with persistent wheezing and asthma get better during the teenage years.

  • About half of the children who have asthma at a young age appear to "outgrow" it, although asthma symptoms may reappear later in life.

If my child has asthma, can he or she participate in sports and activities?

Photo of children playing soccer

Exercise, such as long-distance running, may trigger a flare-up in many children with asthma. However, with proper management, a child with asthma can fully participate in most sports. Aerobic exercise actually improves airway function by strengthening breathing muscles. Some tips for exercising with asthma include the following:

  • Teach your child to breathe through the nose and not the mouth to warm and humidify the air before it enters the airways.

  • During cold weather, have your child wear a scarf over his or her mouth and nose to warm inhaled air.

  • Give your child asthma medication before exercising, as recommended by your child's health care provider. If your child is not already on controller medication and he or she exercises daily, the provider may recommend daily controller medication.

  • Have your child carry his or her quick-relief inhaler medication.

Asthma and school

Some children with asthma may need to take their medications during school hours. It's important that you and your child work with his or her health care provider and school staff to meet the child's asthma treatment goals. For the best asthma care for your child at school, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology recommends the following:

  • Meet with teachers and other relevant school staff to inform them about your child's condition, special needs, and asthma management plan.

  • Educate school personnel on your child's asthma medications and how to assist during an asthma flare-up.

  • Ask school staff to treat your child as normal as possible when the asthma is under control.

  • Before starting a physical education class or a team sport, make sure the teacher or coach understands that exercise can trigger asthma symptoms.

  • Talk with teachers and school administrators about indoor air quality, allergens, and irritants in the school.

  • Ensure your child's emotional well-being by reassuring that asthma doesn't have to slow him or her down or make him or her different from other children.

Control of asthma through the years

Photo of young girl using asthma inhaler while mother watches

Be honest with your child about asthma. Remember, as your child grows, that independence is an important goal. Children with asthma don't want to be different, yet they need guidance and supervision.

  • Toddlers. This age group relies completely on the parents. These children understand little about asthma. The most important factor with this age group is to try to make medication time a fun one, while stressing the importance of taking the medications. Let the children assist in any way possible.

  • School-age. These children have an increased ability to understand asthma. They should be taught about their medications and how to avoid their triggers. They should begin to monitor their own symptoms.

  • Adolescents. Often, adolescents resist taking chronic medications, don't like restrictions, and don't want to be different. Involve adolescents in every aspect of asthma management. They should help with goal setting and help decide which medications work best. An asthma care "contract" can be used. It should allow for self-care while allowing overall parental supervision.

    Having asthma doesn't mean having less fun than other adolescents. It is important for your adolescent to tell his or her friends about his or her triggers.

Always consult your child's provider if you or your child has questions or concerns.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Imaging

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Inspired Health: Inspiring Kids with Asthma for Lifelong Health
    Inspired Health is a unique program based in the MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Division of Pediatric Pulmonology that offers expert evaluation and management of both asthma and weight by a multidisciplinary team whose primary goal is to help families identify and implement simple and practical strategies for improving health.
  • Pediatric Asthma Program
    The Pediatric Asthma Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children provides diagnosis and treatment for all children with asthma with particular focus on difficult-to-control asthma, diagnostic dilemmas and second opinions.
  • Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine
    The Division of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children is a well-established clinical, training and research program. The group provides multidisciplinary comprehensive consultation, diagnostic and management services for a wide array of pulmonary conditions.
General and Gastrointestinal Surgery

  • Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Program
    The Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Program at Massachusetts General Hospital offers a full spectrum of safe and effective surgical procedures for obesity, weight disorders and metabolic disease.
Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine

  • Partners Asthma Center
    Mass General's Asthma Clinic, part of the Partners Asthma Center, provides comprehensive care for patients with asthma and related diseases.

Shedding light on harmful effects of tobacco smoke

MGH Hotline 12.17.10 MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) pediatrician-researcher Jonathan Winickoff, MD, MPH, FAAP, has been a vocal advocate of the health and protection of children from the harmful effects of tobacco smoke.

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