What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (long-term) condition that can make it hard to breathe. Asthma causes the airways in the lungs to become narrow, inflamed (swollen) or irritated (bothered).

What causes asthma attacks?

  • Colds or other illnesses that affect the lungs
  • Cigarette smoke or air pollution
  • Allergies or pollen
  • Infections
  • Mold
  • Pet hair or pet fur
  • Cold air or weather changes

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Not everyone who has asthma has symptoms. Symptoms can happen every day, every week or less often. They can range from mild (not bad) to severe (very bad).

Some common asthma symptoms include:

  • Wheezing (a whistling sound) while breathing, or noisy breathing
  • Coughing, usually at night or with exercise
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing

Can other people catch asthma?

No. But asthma often runs in families. If your child’s asthma is caused by an infection, the infection can be spread, but asthma cannot.

How do doctors treat asthma?

Asthma that is in good control and treated will allow your child to do normal activities, such as playing and attending school. Exercise is good for children with asthma.

Doctors use 2 types of medications to treat asthma. They are quick-relief medications and long-term controllers.

  • Quick-relief medications are used to treat an asthma attack or asthma flare. Quick-relief medications are used when your child has symptoms. Most children with asthma use an albuterol inhaler for quick relief. When your child has an asthma attack, their doctor may also prescribe a steroid medication to take by mouth.
  • Long-term controllers control asthma and prevent future symptoms. Your child will usually take these every day.

Both medications are usually given through an inhaler with a spacer. Some children also use a nebulizer machine to help the medications get into the lungs. A doctor or nurse can show you how to use these devices.

Can I prevent an asthma attack and asthma symptoms?

Yes. You can help prevent your child from having asthma symptoms.

How can I prevent asthma symptoms?

  • Have your child take their asthma medications exactly the way the doctor prescribed them.
  • Learn what triggers (causes) your child’s asthma symptoms so you can avoid them. If you do not know what causes your child’s asthma, talk with the doctor about what you can do to help.
  • Keep your child away from cigarette smoke. Do not smoke or let anyone else smoke around your child.
  • Make sure your child is up to date with their vaccines. Have your child and family members get the flu vaccine every year.

When should my child see the doctor?

Call the doctor if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing more than usual
  • Coughing or wheezing that gets worse
  • Coughing up dark brown or bloody mucus
  • A new or higher fever
  • If your child’s symptoms do not get better after following the steps in their Asthma Action Plan

When should I call 911?

Call 911 or go to your closest emergency room if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • Having a very hard time breathing
  • Breathing so hard that the belly muscles or ribs pull into the body
  • Flaring nostrils (nostrils that get bigger when breathing)
  • Turning blue around the lips

Watch closely for any changes in your child’s health. Call the doctor if your child needs quick-relief medication for more than 2 days a week.

My child is taking a lot of medications for asthma. Are they necessary?

Yes. We know it seems like a lot of medications, but they are all important for your child to take. Leaving your child’s asthma untreated has more risks than taking the medications. Untreated asthma can prevent your child from doing normal activities. It can also cause them to miss school or hurt their lungs.

What is an Asthma Action Plan?

This is a plan of care that is written by your child’s doctor. It will include your child’s medicines and what you can do when your child has an asthma attack. It is important to share copies of this plan with the people who take care of your child to keep them safe.

Rev. 3/2022. Mass General for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this webpage. This content is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treat any medical conditions.