Your child gets winded easily or wheezes when exhaling. Colds seem to linger for weeks. Or there's that cough that never quite goes away. Sound familiar? If so, your child could have asthma. This chronic inflammatory condition of the airways—the tubes that bring air to the lungs—makes it hard to breathe.

In asthma, the airways become inflamed and swollen when they come in contact with certain triggers. Kids with nonallergic asthma may be sensitive to irritants such as cigarette smoke or cold air, while kids with allergic asthma may react to those triggers as well as to allergens such as seasonal pollens and dust mites.

Whatever the form of asthma, it is characterized by constriction and inflammation of the muscles around the airways and increased mucus in the lungs. As the airways narrow, less air flows into the lungs. The result is the onset of unpleasant symptoms, such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

Asthma's Rise

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asthma affects an estimated 6.8 million children in the United States. The disorder leads to nearly 15 million missed school days each year.

More and more children are diagnosed annually. Experts attribute the increase to several factors. It may be that fewer children today are exposed to microbes that might stimulate the immune system and protect them from allergies and asthma later in life.

Experts also blame the upswing on pollution and the buildup of greenhouse gases, which increases the production of pollen, a top allergy trigger. Thankfully, dying from childhood asthma is increasingly rare, but "all patients with asthma still need to be closely monitored," says Devang R. Doshi, M.D., director of the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, MI.

Nonallergic Asthma

In nonallergic asthma, a child's airway inflammation can be caused by these culprits:

  • Viral infections—Rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and other respiratory infections can predispose a child to asthma or trigger an attack.
  • Cigarette smoke—Secondhand smoke might cause up to 26,000 new cases of childhood asthma each year.
  • Household irritants—Paint fumes, aerosol sprays and perfumes are triggers for some kids.
  • Other factors—Exercise-induced asthma is triggered by physical activity, especially in the cold. Chilly air, weather changes and heightened emotions can contribute to breathing difficulties. "If asthma is not well-controlled, even laughing too hard or getting upset can lead to bronchial constriction and symptoms," says Asriani M. Chiu, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics/allergy at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Allergic Asthma

Up to 80 percent of kids with asthma have allergic asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). In addition to the possibility of being triggered by the irritants mentioned above, their asthma attacks may be spurred by common allergens such as:

  • Pollens from grasses, trees and weeds—These seasonal menaces affect allergy sufferers in the spring, summer and fall, causing asthma symptoms in vulnerable children.
  • Cockroaches—Insect feces and saliva can cause problems.
  • Dust mites—Kids may react to these microscopic creatures that eat dead skin flakes and nest in mattresses, pillows, upholstered furniture, carpets, clothing and stuffed animals.
  • Animals—Children may be allergic to pets' saliva, urine and skin flakes. "Any type of furred animal, and even horses and cows, can cause an asthma attack," says Maeve O'Connor, M.D., a pediatric allergist at the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center in Charlotte, NC.
  • Molds—Wherever there is moisture, molds produce spores that become airborne and can be inhaled.
  • Foods—Allergies to foods such as eggs, cow's milk, soy, nuts, wheat and peanuts can trigger an asthma attack.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Raymond Slavin, M.D.; Derek Johnson, M.D. for MDminuteâ„¢

Published: 30 Sep 2009

Last Modified: 10 Oct 2014