What is Asthma? :: Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio

What is Asthma?

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease of the lungs. When you have asthma, the airways are very sensitive to many things in the air. The airways may get smaller when you are around things that trigger your asthma. This is called a flare-up.

What happens during an asthma flare-up?
Asthma can be very serious. Breathing problems that start out mild can turn deadly. Three main things happen during an asthma flare-up that can make it hard to breathe:

  • The airways swell and they become smaller.
  • The airways fill with mucus.
  • The muscles around the airway tighten and squeeze the airways making them smaller.

Asthma flare-ups begin with swelling in the airways. Asthma flare-ups or serious attacks can happen if the swelling is not treated. Taking medicines to control the swelling can prevent an asthma flare-up. Medicines that treat the swelling must be used every day. Follow the Asthma Action Plan that your doctor gives you.

Can asthma be cured?
The good news is that asthma can be controlled. There is no medicine that can cure asthma. Asthma symptoms often improve as children get older. However, this may take a long time.

Signs of an Asthma Flare-up

Warning signs
Most asthma flare-ups start slowly. You may notice small changes in your child’s body before a flare-up. Changes include:

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • itchy or watery eyes
  • itchy or sore throat
  • tiredness

Many things can cause an asthma flare-up. They are called triggers. Know your child’s asthma triggers and avoid them.

Time to start rescue medicine

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Noisy breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Fast breathing
  • For very young children, grunting during sucking or feeding, fussiness, or unusual tiredness

Call your doctor
Rescue medicine didn’t help or isn’t lasting 4 hours:

  • Coughing continues
  • Wheezing increases
  • Vomiting after cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Fast breathing continues

Danger signs – Go to the E.R. or call 911!
Rescue medicine has been given but your child is having the following symptoms:

  • Lips and fingernails turn grey or blue
  • Breathing hard and fast (gasping)
  • Nose opens wide when breathing
  • Ribs and neck muscles show when breathing
  • Hard to talk, walk, eat or drink due to being short of breath

What to do during an asthma flare-up
Tell your child to:

  • Tell an adult (parent, teacher, school nurse, coach, or babysitter) when having trouble breathing.
  • Follow the Asthma Action Plan.
  • Take the rescue medicine as directed by the doctor.
  • Relax. Stay calm and try to breathe slowly and deeply.

When to go to school or work

Talk to your doctor about when you might need to stay home from work or school.

Your doctor may say it is OK to go to school or work if you:

  • Have a stuffy nose but no wheezing, fever or sinus pain
  • Have a little wheezing that goes away after you use your rescue medicine
  • Are able to do normal activities
  • Can breathe without extra effort

Your doctor may suggest that you stay home when you:

  • Have a fever
  • Have a bad cold
  • Wheeze, cough, are short of breath, or your chest feels tight an hour after taking rescue medicine
  • Feel too weak to do normal activities
  • Are breathing hard or very fast
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