Asthma in toddlers

How can you spot the signs and symptoms of asthma in a toddler? And what’s the best way to manage it? 

According to Asthma Australia the lung disease is one of the most common causes of hospital admissions and GP visits for young children.

Bupa’s National Medical Director and GP Dr Tim Ross explains how knowledge and a management plan can help take control of asthma.

When can asthma be diagnosed?

Ross says babies under 12 or 18 months usually aren’t diagnosed with asthma. This is because their airways are still so narrow that wheezing may be normal.

But once children are over 12 or 18 months, parents and a GP can usually spot the signs and symptoms of asthma. At this stage, a diagnosis and asthma action plan can be made.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Parents might notice their child has a cough that flares up or doesn’t go away after a cold, their cough or breathing might sound wheezy or they might be short of breath.

“Sometimes you can just see or hear it in their chest - that they’re muscles are working harder,” says Ross. 

Children might be short of breath or have less energy than usual.

“Parents pick that up pretty quickly when they see something that’s not normal and that’s when you should visit your GP,” says Ross. 

Treating asthma in toddlers

Ross says your GP will talk to you about the spectrum in terms of severity, treatments available and how to prevent flare ups.

There are lots of different medications (relievers and preventers) to treat asthma; sprays, powder inhalers even a chewable preventer tablet.
toddler running on a beach

Encouraging children to take their medication

Because children may not understand why they need this new medicine or how to take it, Ross recommends using asthma sprays through a spacer with a mask. It’s also the best way to get the medication into your lungs.

He says it’s a good idea to let your child play with the spacer and mask to get used to it.

“Let them know it’s like a toy and not something that they need to fear,” he says. “Show them the mask on your face, show them the mask on their face and see how you go.”

“If they still don’t want it you can just hold it on their face and they might kick and scream but as long as it’s on their face they’re getting good amounts in their lungs.”

“After you’ve done it two or three times they’ll realise this isn’t actually hurting me and it’s not a problem,” Ross says. “Kids pick it up pretty quickly that they’ve been coughing and short of breath and they take this stuff and they actually feel better afterwards.”

“Asthma is one of those conditions that you get a direct benefit from taking your medication so kids are normally pretty good,” says Ross. “They learn if they don’t want to feel bad they have to take their medication.”

 Ross says the good news is many kids who have asthma as a toddler grow out of it by the time they are five or six.

Understanding asthma in toddlers

Ross says its important parents understand their child’s asthma triggers, and use preventer medication to avoid flare ups.
“They might get wheezy when they get a cold, they might get a cough in spring, or they are short of breath or the like,” says Ross. “It’s a very characteristic cough the wheezy cough, it’s different from a barking cough or a wet cough.”
“Often with asthma there is a family history in one of the parents so there is some experience in the family, if not it’s just about education.”
Your GP will put together an asthma action plan with you to help prevent exacerbations, and plot out exactly what needs to happen if there are signs and symptoms of an asthma attack.

Managing your child’s asthma at child care

Day care, kinder and school must all have a copy of your asthma action plan, which is completed by your doctor.
“There will usually be people in the centre who are trained in use of the medication and be familiar with it,” says Ross. “It’s just a matter of putting down what your kids’ triggers are, what to do when those triggers occur and when to escalate to an ambulance or hospital.”
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