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What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes the airways in the lungs to narrow and swell, making it difficult to breath. Everyday triggers in the environment, such as weather, dust, chemicals, smoke, and pet dander, create an even greater sensitivity for asthma sufferers.

As the most common chronic medical condition among children in the U.S., asthma often is the reason why children are seen in the emergency department or admitted to the hospital. It's also the most common reason why children are absent from school.

Asthma | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Symptoms of asthma are caused by inflammation, which causes narrowing of small air passages in the lungs. Symptoms may include:

  • Wheezing
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness

Asthma ranges from mild with occasional symptoms to severe with persistent symptoms that make daily life difficult. Even children with mild disease may have severe asthma episodes (exacerbations).

What causes asthma?

The risk factors for developing asthma include:

Asthma | Diagnosis & Treatments

How is asthma diagnosed?

If your child is exhibiting signs of asthma, such as wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath, it's important to visit your primary-care provider. Your doctor will request a complete medical history, evaluate the symptoms and conduct a physical exam. There are also several tests that may be performed, including spirometry, a test that estimates the narrowing of the bronchial tubes by measuring the amount of air the lungs can hold and the speed of your child's ability to inhale or exhale.

How is asthma treated?

The goals of each child's treatment program is to prevent asthma attacks, prevent emergency room visits and to maximize peace of mind. Your child will be prescribed medications to:

  • Help control the asthma
  • Improve breathing
  • Relieve symptoms
  • Get back to regular activities

Although the is no cure for asthma, there are many treatments available. For the most part, it can be controlled and managed with proper use of medication and, when possible, avoiding triggers. Children with asthma can to do everything their friends can do, including playing sports at any level, when their asthma is well controlled.

How we care for asthma

In addition to your primary care provider, Boston Children’s Hospital has two specialty departments that can help children with asthma — the Division of Immunology and the Division of Pulmonary Medicine. We often work together to treat your child.

The Division of Immunology evaluates and treats children with various allergic disorders to inhaled particles, food, insect stings, and drugs. We offer treatments ranging from oral and inhaled medications to immunotherapy (also known as allergy shots, or allergen desensitization). We also do skin testing to determine what your child is allergic to.

In the Division of Pulmonary Medicine, we can help make or confirm the diagnosis of asthma and rule out other breathing disorders that may have similar symptoms. We provide recommendations for treatment, teach children and families the proper way to use medications, and provide long-term follow-up, when needed. We pay special attention to measuring children’s lung function and following their lung development over time in our state-of-the-art pulmonary function testing labs.

The Severe Asthma Program is a collaborative clinical program staffed by pulmonologists, allergists, asthma nurse specialists, and social workers. We treat children who continue to have asthma that is difficult to control even when treated with standard therapies. The Severe Asthma Program team provides an extensive evaluation and management plan, and the team is available to consult with your primary asthma provider about your care or provide you with long-term care for your severe asthma.

Asthma | Patient Resources

Asthma | Programs & Services