Although asthma in children and adults is the same disease, toddlers and young children face more challenges. It is difficult for parents as well, as asthma is the most common chronic condition in children and a top reason why children seek emergency visits, hospitalization, and missed days at school. The lungs reach full maturity(lung function) by the age of 20-25. Therefore, getting the symptoms under control is important to prevent damage to the lungs which are still developing at young ages.
Asthma symptoms in young children
What does an asthma attack look like in a toddler (age 1-3) or young children? At a young age, children are unable to tell what they feel and how they experience the symptoms. Thus, parents have to play the detective role at times. They also need to identify possible triggers of the symptoms. Common symptoms of asthma include frequent coughing, wheezing when breathing out, and difficulty breathing. The symptoms worsen during a viral infection, when asleep, during exercise, when exposed to cold air, or when crying, laughing, or feeling stressed. Due to the symptoms, children will have trouble sleeping, recover slower from a cold or flu, be unable to exercise due to coughing, and experience fatigue. Getting an assessment from a pediatrician is important, since these symptoms may be caused by bronchitis or other respiratory problems which may require different treatment.
Asthma symptoms that require emergency treatment
Severe symptoms require medical treatment right away at the hospital. If the child has to stop talking in the middle of the sentence to catch a breath, or if the breathing is difficult (the nostrils become wider or uses abdominal muscles to breathe), emergency treatment should be sought. In some cases, the tummy is sucked under the ribs when breathing because the child makes extra effort to breathe. These symptoms along with severe coughing and wheezing require prompt evaluation and treatment.
Asthma triggers and risk factors
- Triggers.The most common asthma triggers include viral infections such as common cold or flu, air pollutants, allergens such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites and pet dander; cold dry air of sudden changes in weather, exercise and stress.
- Risk factors. Some risk factors such as male gender, family history of asthma, previous environmental and food allergies can’t be modified. However, other risk factors can be reduced or eliminated. They include exposure to tobacco or other air pollutants, obesity, heartburn/acid reflux and respiratory conditions like sinus infections, or pneumonia.
Modern life, particularly living in well-developed countries, is associated with a significant risk of childhood asthma. Scientists are warning us that asthma prevalence has dramatically increased in the last 40 years in North America, while other regions such as Asia, Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, and Eastern Mediterranean areas still have lower cases. There is also a big difference between living in urban living versus rural areas.
- A major risk factor is environmental pollution and children are even more vulnerable than adults. That is because children inhale a higher volume of air per body weight when compared with adults. Studies found that children that live in areas near traffic are more likely to get asthma symptoms and require hospital visits. Rapid urbanization and modern life brough many air pollutants that older generations did not experience before. The major pollutants are fuel combustion from vehicles, power plants, construction and agriculture operations. Indoor air pollutants are also common triggers for asthma. Cooking in poorly ventilated areas increases the amount of compounds like carbon monoxide, sulfur and nitrogen dioxide and other particulate matters that irritate the airways. Mold, dust mites, high humidity and pollen from outdoors also worsen the symptoms of asthma. Tobacco smoke is also a major indoor pollutant. Add hundreds of synthetic chemicals found in house cleaning products, plastics, personal care products to which children are exposed each and every day.
- Modern life also increased the consumption of fast food. Western diet- or frequent consumption of fast food is emerging as a risk factor for asthma, while Mediterranean diet is linked with lower prevalence of asthma. Fast food is also a major cause of obesity, which is an independent risk factor for asthma as well. Excess fat and lack of essential nutrients promote an inflammatory state and abnormal immune response, which raise the risk of asthma or symptom aggravation.
More and more American children suffer from asthma. But this can be changed. Having a good treatment plan and regular follow-ups with the doctor are essential. However, it is also important to optimize the environment by reducing environmental pollutants and adopting a healthy lifestyle. Switching from a Western-type diet to a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, quality proteins, and healthy fats may be challenging for both children and adults. A nutritionist or dietician can help provide individualized meal plans and keep the patients and children motivated to eat healthily.