Asthma is an inflammatory condition that affects the airways in your lungs. The diagnosis of asthma is usually made by a GP.
You can get asthma at any age. Sometimes it starts when you’re an adult and sometimes it starts when you’re a child. It’s very hard to say what causes asthma and in young children it can be difficult to diagnose.
Parents often wonder if their child is likely to develop asthma. It’s difficult to answer this question but we can say that there are some risk factors that increase a child’s chances of developing the condition.
According to the British Thoracic Society/ Scottish Intercollegiate Network (BTS/SIGN) Guidelines there are several factors which are associated with a high or low risk of developing asthma or persisting wheeze in childhood.
Parents may often hear the word ‘atopy’ used by healthcare professionals and wonder what it means. Atopy can be described as a tendency or genetic predisposition to develop the classic allergic conditions such as eczema, allergic rhinitis or asthma.
If a child has atopic conditions such as eczema or rhinitis they’re more likely to go on to develop asthma. A family history of atopy further increases the probability of a child developing asthma, particularly if it’s the child’s mother that has the atopic condition or conditions.
There’s evidence to suggest that a child who has a persistent reduction in airway function, which may be due to a variety of reasons such as premature birth or exposure to certain viruses, and airways that are very easily irritated (hyperesponsive), have an increased chance of going on to develop asthma.
Parents and carers to be should be made aware that smoking has many adverse effects on a child’s health and this includes an increased likelihood of persistent wheezing in infancy, an increased risk of persistent asthma and can affect lung development.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also important.
Parents sometimes worry about immunisation but it’s important that all scheduled immunisations happen to protect the child against serious disease. There’s no evidence to suggest that immunisation increases the risk of a child going on to develop asthma. People with asthma are strongly advised to have a flu jab every year as contracting the flu virus could trigger asthma symptoms.
It’s interesting to note that male children are more likely to have asthma pre-puberty than girls but are more likely to ‘grow out of it’ during their teenage years.
A diagnosis of asthma is reached by assessing the probability of asthma after taking a really detailed clinical history and sometimes by carrying out some breathing tests, but not all children are able to do the breathing tests properly. After asking lots of questions about the child, including questions about their health, their birth history, the family history, the environment and if they’ve been exposed to tobacco smoke, the GP will consider a diagnosis of asthma. He or she will have to be satisfied that all other possible explanations for the symptoms have been excluded.
If the probability of a child having asthma is assessed as high they’ll start a trial of treatment to see if it works. If it works it increases the probability that it’s asthma. If the probability is unsure, further tests would be considered and if the probability is thought to be low a child’s usually referred to a specialist.
A child may have asthma if they have one or more of the following:
– Chest tightness
These symptoms are more likely to be asthma related if they’re worse at night or early morning, or when they exercise or go out in the cold. The child may also have these symptoms if they’re exposed to certain allergens or triggers. A trigger is something that makes your asthma worse and everyone’s triggers are different.
What to do if you’re worried
If your child has any of the above and you’re worried, it’s important that you make an appointment with your GP to discuss your concerns so that if it is asthma, treatment and advice on self-management can be provided really early, minimising the risk of disruption to your child’s quality of life or education. For the vast majority of people asthma is controllable but it’s important to talk to your GP or asthma nurse and to take your child to see them every six months for an asthma review even if they’re well. This review is important so that your child’s asthma can be assessed and the medicine reviewed. The asthma nurse or GP can check your child has the best inhaler and device for their age and that they can use it correctly. An asthma action plan can be discussed so that you know what to do every day to keep your child well, how to recognise when their asthma is getting worse or when they’re having an attack and most importantly what you should do.
Having an asthma action plan is really important to help you to look after your child. We know that people who have an asthma action plan are four times less likely to need to go to hospital with their asthma which is good news.
Be aware where you can get further information and make sure you tell your child’s school or Early Years establishment as they’ll ask you for an inhaler to keep.
For further information or to speak to an asthma nurse specialist. Asthma UK’s Helpline service is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. The number to call is 0800 121 62 44.