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What is Childhood Asthma?

Like adults with asthma, children with the disease experience a tightening of the muscles in the airways known as bronchial tubes. This tightening, or bronchospasm, makes it more difficult for air to flow in and out of the lungs, producing the characteristic wheezing or whistling sound common in asthma and making breathing more difficult. People with asthma generally always have inflammation in their airways which contributes to this tightening. The tightening of the airways, however, usually occurs as a result of some sort of trigger. These triggers range from allergens and environmental exposures to exercise and infections. Strong emotions can also trigger an asthma attack in children, but this occurs much more infrequently than people have believed. The important thing for parents to remember is, asthma is in the airways, not in the head.

Although asthma can occur for the first time at any age, many people with the condition developed it first as children. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood, affecting around 10 percent to 12 percent of all children in the United States. Most kids who develop the disease begin to have symptoms by age five, but symptoms can arise later in childhood as well.

What puts a child at particular risk for asthma? Studies have shown having a family history of the disease is a good predictor of whether a child will develop asthma, and most children with asthma—up to 80 percent—also suffer from significant allergies. Inner city children, who are more likely to be exposed to allergens and irritants associated with asthma, such as cockroaches and secondhand tobacco smoke, are especially prone to the condition, with some estimates suggesting as many as 35 percent to 40 percent of these children have the disease. Also at higher risk are children whose mothers smoked while they were pregnant or who were born with lower birth weights.

Created: September 2003
Reviewed: May 26, 2005

2023 American Association for Respiratory Care