Common childhood asthma signs and symptoms include:
- Frequent, intermittent coughing
- A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling
- Shortness of breath
- Chest congestion or tightness
- Chest pain, particularly in younger children
Other signs and symptoms of childhood asthma include:
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
- Bouts of coughing or wheezing that get worse with a respiratory infection, such as a cold or the flu
- Delayed recovery or bronchitis after a respiratory infection
- Trouble breathing that may limit play or exercise
- Fatigue, which can be caused by poor sleep
The first signs of asthma in young children may be recurrent wheezing triggered by a respiratory virus. As children grow older, asthma associated with respiratory allergies is more common.
Asthma signs and symptoms vary from child to child, and may get worse or better over time. While wheezing is most commonly associated with asthma, not all children with asthma wheeze. Your child may have only one sign or symptom, such as a lingering cough or chest congestion.
It may be difficult to tell whether your child's symptoms are caused by asthma or something else. Periodic or long-lasting wheezing and other asthma-like symptoms may be caused by infectious bronchitis or another respiratory problem.
When to see a doctor
Take your child to see the doctor as soon as possible if you suspect he or she may have asthma. Early treatment will not only help control day-to-day asthma symptoms, but also may prevent asthma attacks.
Make an appointment with your child's doctor if you notice:
- Coughing that's constant, intermittent or seems to be linked to physical activity
- Wheezing or whistling sounds when your child exhales
- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
- Complaints of chest tightness
- Repeated episodes of suspected bronchitis or pneumonia
If your child has asthma, he or she may say things such as, "My chest feels funny" or "I'm always coughing." Asthma can be worse at night, so listen for coughing during sleep or coughing that awakens your child. Crying, laughing, yelling, or strong emotional reactions and stress also may trigger coughing or wheezing.
If your child is diagnosed with asthma, creating an asthma action plan can help you and other caregivers monitor symptoms and know what to do if an asthma attack does occur.
When to seek emergency treatment
In severe cases, you may see your child's chest and sides pulling inward as he or she struggles to breathe. Your child may have an increased heartbeat, sweating and chest pain. Seek emergency care if your child:
- Has to stop in midsentence to catch his or her breath
- Is using abdominal muscles to breathe
- Has widened nostrils when breathing in
- Is trying so hard to breathe that the abdomen is sucked under the ribs when he or she breathes in
Even if your child hasn't been diagnosed with asthma, seek medical attention immediately if he or she has trouble breathing. Although episodes of asthma vary in severity, asthma attacks can start with coughing, which progresses to wheezing and labored breathing.