What is asthma?

Diversity hug

Asthma is a respiratory (the breathing system including the lungs, mouth and nose) disease. An asthma attack happens when something blocks the flow of air into the child’s lungs. Asthma is different from other types of breathing problems because the block allowing air to enter the lungs is reversible. (It can be fixed.) Asthma is the most common disease in children and the leading cause of children missing school and children being admitted to hospitals.

What are some common signs of asthma?

The most common symptoms (signs) of asthma are problems breathing, like wheezing, coughing and/or shortness of breath. Your child may start out feeling a tightness in the chest and be unable to play or exercise normally. Then he or she may start wheezing or having heavy breathing and shortness of breath. Other signs of asthma are shortness of breath or coughing when exercising and coughing at night even without shortness of breath. The symptoms can range from mild to severe. Most problems with asthma are worse at night. They also seem to be more severe in boys and in children under 5 years old.

Fletcher-Janzen & Reynolds, 2003 & Brown, 1999

What can I do to help my child now?

You have made an important first step by reading more information on asthma. Another step you can take is to talk with other parents of children with asthma. They have gone through what you are going through now and may be able to help. You also can get help from parent support and advocacy groups such by contacting 2-1-1 and asking for Help Me Grow. Help Me Grow will work with you and your family to find you the resources you and your family need. Research tells us that the earlier we begin to help children, the better the results for the child and family.

Getting started.

Work with my child’s service providers.

Help my child to stay fit.

Limit my child’s exposure to things that cause an asthma attack.

Teach my child learn how to control anxiety or agitation.

Work with my child’s school to help him or her to keep up with school.

Help my child with self-esteem (self-image).


Getting Started:

Get your child’s tested for asthma: A number of specialists can help your child and your family. (See the section on Professionals for a complete list.) Check with your pediatrician and your insurance carrier for a referral to the specialist(s) that can help your child.


Contact Children’s Medical Services (CMS)

for medical care for your child:

Children’s Medical Services

Main Phone: (850) 245-4200

Contact Form :

Work with my child’s service providers:

A service provider is anyone who works with you and your child such as your doctors, nurses, teachers, social worker, or any professional. Remember that you know more about your child than anyone else and are the main influence in your child’s life. Service providers are there to help you and your child. Here are some tips for speaking with service providers:

  • Feel free to ask questions and make comments. Be specific about what you know about your child and what you want and need for your child. Be honest about what you expect, any worries you may have or about anything you don’t understand.
  • If you think your child needs something in particular (such as a speech evaluation or special accommodations), keep asking until you get it or until you learn why it is not needed.
  • If your child’s asthma is severe, you may need to use your school system’s hospital or homebound service to provide an education for your child.

Your child may need a Section 504 educational plan to make sure your child’s educational and health care needs are met. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This federal law allows qualified children with chronic illness to have special services or supports in their schools. For more information on Section 504, see the following website:

Get more information:

Visit more websites. Read a book. Watch a video on asthma. Include your child and family. Talk with another parent. Call2-1-1 and ask for Help Me Grow. Help Me Grow will work with you and your family to find you the resources you and your family need.

Click here for a list of websites

Click here for a list of books or videos

Help my child to stay fit:

Take part in family fun, recreation activities, play and all parts of your daily life. Having asthma doesn’t mean your child will lack the ability to enjoy life. A child with asthma may need to limit some physical activities, but still needs exercise and to play like any child. Many activities are available for children with special needs. See a list of activities and programs below.

Dial 211 for a list of recreation areas and programs

(Creer, 1988 as cited in Thompson & Gustafson, 1996)

Limit my child’s exposure to things that cause an asthma attack:

  • Watch for and write down information about when and where your child’s asthma attacks happen. See if you can figure out the most likely causes such as dust, perfumes, dogs or cats and pollen. Take steps to manage your child’s symptoms by keeping them away from likely causes. If fur is the problem, don’t keep pets in the house. Taking carpet out of your house and having only hard surface flooring (like tile or wood) also sometimes helps.
  • When an asthma attack occurs, do what is needed to bring the symptoms under control. Some of the things you can do: Remind your child to relax, remove him or her from a probable cause, and/or give that child his or her medication for the symptoms.

For older children:

  • Teach your child to be independent in taking the steps needed to manage symptoms. Keeping an inhaler close, knowing when to stop and rest, how to avoid things that will trigger an attack.
  • Teach your child to self-monitor (being aware of the symptoms that an attack may happen) such as tightness in the chest, wheezing, shortness of breath.

Teach my child learn how to control anxiety or agitation (when this causes them to have attacks or makes them worse): Some things that may help older children control attacks:

  • Social skills training/counseling: Ways to deal with feelings that the child is different and any self-esteem problems or problems dealing with other children.
  • Relaxation techniques: How to control panic, anxiety and feelings that can trigger an attack or make it worse.
  • Massage therapy: This can help to reduce, anxiety, stress and help with air flow and breathing.

Work with my child’s school to help him or her to keep up with school:

Children with asthma are more likely to miss school because of absences or being in the hospital. Help your child from falling behind in school work:

  • Ask your child’s teachers if they can decrease the number of your child’s assignments.
  • Work with those teachers to establish a routine for getting assignments and homework to your child.
  • Establish a way to stay in frequent contact with teachers — for example, a notebook that goes between home and school or an e-mail address.
  • Establish a “home schooling” routine so your child continues to study and does not fall far behind classmates.

Help my child with self-esteem (self-image):

Some children feel low self-esteem because their asthma makes them different than other children (can’t play) Help your child by:

  • Encouraging that child to talk about feelings.
  • Listening when that child talks to you. Show him or her that you think the feelings and problems are real.
  • Having a therapist or psychologist for your child may help. Children sometimes can talk with them and share feelings that they might not be able to with a parent or family member.
  • Working with your school and other professionals to make sure both your child’s education needs and social needs are met.

Why does asthma happen?

Cute families
One cause of asthma is the presence of environmental agents such as dust, perfume or cigarette smoke. Cold air and respiratory infections often cause an asthma attack. Exercise, changes in the temperature and laughing or crying also can trigger an attack. An attack can range from a mild case such as feeling a shortness of breath or so bad the child turns blue from lack of oxygen (called cyanosis). In very severe cases, a child not given medication can die from lack of air.

Fletcher-Janzen & Reynolds, 2003 & Brown, 1999

Do many children have asthma?

About five million children have asthma in the United States. It is the most common childhood ailment. Asthmatic symptoms usually begin in children before they are 5 years old. Despite new treatments, more children each year are diagnosed with asthma. The number of children who die from asthma also has grown. One reason why more deaths are happening is because people (even some doctors) don’t realize how severe a case of asthma can be. However, asthma-related breathing problems are treatable. Don’t take any chances. Always have your child diagnosed and keep medication near at all times. Try to keep your child away from things that may cause an attack (e.g., dust, smoke or animal hair).

Fletcher-Janzen & Reynolds, 2003

What does asthma mean for my child’s intelligence and learning?

Children with asthma sometimes have learning and/or behavior problems in school. Asthma symptoms or the medication given to your child for asthma sometimes can change the way the brain functions. These are called neurocognitive changes.

Sometimes it is as simple as the amount of school that your child misses. In other cases, it’s because your child has issues with self-esteem or feels “different” from other kids. These children may have problems with being teased or making friends. This can result in behavior problems or “acting out.” A child with such difficulties may have emotional problems. For problems in school, ask your child’s school for an evaluation and a plan to help your child meet his or her education needs. A school psychologist or an outside counselor perhaps can help your child deal with social or emotional issues. Look for and ask for help, and never ignore a developing situation.

Fowler et al., 1992 McLoughlin et al., 1983 Bender 1995

What does asthma mean for my child’s health?

These things can help control and treat asthma:

  • Environmental control: Means eliminating common substances that can cause asthma symptoms. You can help your child by preventing him or her from being around things known to cause asthma symptoms – for example, dust, cigarette smoke, dust mites, pet hair and perfumes. Taking carpet out of your house and having only hard-surface flooring sometimes helps.
  • Medication: Can control, treat and sometimes prevent asthma attacks. Usually it means using some kind of inhaler to get drugs into the lungs and airway tubes. Sometimes oral steroids (pills that are swallowed) are used when an inhaler doesn’t work or can’t be used. In very severe cases a child may need oxygen with medications and perhaps an injection.

NIH, 1997

Who are some professionals my child may need to see?

Your child may need to see many different health care specialists. For example:

  • Pediatrician: A doctor who specializes in treating children. The word “pediatric” in front of a professional’s title means he or she works with children.
  • Pediatric pulmonologist: A doctor who specializes in treating children with asthma and other lung-related conditions.
  • Pediatric allergist: A doctor who specializes in treating children with allergies and abnormal reactions to some substances.
  • Pediatric neurologist: A doctor who specializes in treating conditions of the nervous system and the brain in children.
  • Pediatric otolaryngologist: A doctor who specializes in treating conditions of the ears, nose and throat in children — sometimes called ear, nose and throat specialists.
  • Pediatric audiologist: A professional trained to evaluate (test) hearing loss and related disorders, including balance (vestibular) disorders and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and help children hearing loss and related problems.
  • Social worker and counselor: A professional who provides counseling and emotional support for the child and family, and may help coordinate services, too.
  • Care coordinator: An individual responsible for organizing the details across agency lines and serving as your contact to help you and your family get services and assistance.
  • Home/hospital-bound teacher: A teacher who is part of the homebound/hospital- bound program. Works with your child when at home or hospitalized for more than 15 days. You must be part of the hospital/homebound program to have a teacher visit your child at home or in the hospital.

What are some websites where I can read more about asthma?

American Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) AAFA provides practical information, community-based services and support through a national network of chapters and support groups. AAFA develops health education, organizes state and national advocacy efforts and funds research to find treatments and cures.

American Academy of Asthma and Immunology This provides the latest news on asthma and allergies.

NIH’s MedlinePLUS A comprehensive source of links and a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.

Medicine.net is an online, health care media publishing company.

What are some special books I can read to my child?

The ABCs of Asthma: An Asthma Alphabet Book for Kids of All Ages (paperback) by Kim Gosselin, Terry Ravanelli (Illustrator). This alphabet book matches each letter of the alphabet with corresponding words associated with asthma. This fun and educational book explains asthma, things that trigger asthma episodes, items used in the treatment of asthma and words that provide encouragement to children with asthma. (Ages 4-8)

Breathe Easy: Young People’s Guide to Asthma by Jonathan H., Weiss, Ph.D. This provides practical information for young people to manage their asthma. Contains checklists, tips, resources, diagrams and illustrations. Includes discussions on how to recognize situations that trigger asthma attacks, early warning signs, asthma medicines and how they work, relaxation techniques and where to find additional help and ideas. (Ages 9-12)

Taking Asthma to School (Special Kids in Schools), Second Edition (Special Kids in Schools Series, No. 2) (paperback) by Kim Gosselin, Moss Freedman (illustrator). This illustrated children’s book in color helps provide an emotionally safe school environment, allowing classmates to view children with asthma as normal kids who just happen to have asthma through no fault of their own. This book will help children and parents discuss asthma with schoolmates and classroom teachers. It includes “Ten Tips for Teachers” and “Kids Quiz.” (Ages 4-8)