If your child or baby is struggling for breath
Spotting asthma symptoms in your child
What asthma symptoms look like in children and how to spot them
I’m Debbie, a respiratory nurse specialist at Asthma + Lung UK.
If you’re worried your child might have asthma, but you’re not sure whether to talk to your doctor about it, here are the things to look out for.
There are four main symptoms of asthma: coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness. A combination of these symptoms makes asthma more likely.
Children get coughs all the time, so how do you know if it could be asthma? When your child coughs is a sign. Children with asthma often cough at night, in the early morning, after exercise, or when they’re excited or laughing.
Another sign is if your child has had a cough for a long time and it won’t go away. A wheeze is a whistling sound in your child’s chest, usually when they breathe out.
A wheeze is not the same as other chesty noises and is often hard to hear. Even your nurse or doctor might need to use a stethoscope. So if you can’t hear a wheeze, but your child has other symptoms I’d still recommend talking to your doctor about asthma.
Chest tightness is another sign. This one’s not so easy to notice. In my experience, children with chest tightness often rub their tummy or chest.
If they can talk, they might say things like, ‘I have a tummy ache’ or ‘my chest hurts’.
Breathlessness is another symptom to look out for. It’s normal for children to get a bit breathless when they’re running around and playing. So how do you know if it’s something to worry about?
Firstly, you might notice that their breathing is faster or that they have to try a bit harder to breathe. You may be able to see more of their body moving, for example moving their shoulders up and down. When they’re playing, you might notice they get more out of breath or stay out of breath for longer than other children, or that symptoms carry on afterwards. Sometimes they might get breathless even when they’re not exercising or being active. And finally, they might start avoiding exercise because they don’t like the symptoms.
As a parent or carer, it’s easy to feel that you’re worrying too much or that you’ll be bothering your doctor. But I would always want to know if one of my patients was getting these symptoms. The right treatment could help your child’s cough, wheeze, tight chest or breathlessness, so it really is worth getting them seen.
If you have any questions about your child’s symptoms, speak to your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist. You can also call our helpline.
Ask your doctor about asthma if your child or baby has one or more of these tell-tale symptoms
Ask your GP about asthma if your child sometimes has one or more of these symptoms. A combination of signs and symptoms makes asthma more likely.
- A cough that won’t go away or keeps coming back.
- A night-time or an early morning cough – this is common in children with asthma.
- A cough after doing exercise or being active.
- A cough when excited or laughing.
- A high-pitched whistling sound, usually when your child’s breathing out. Wheezing is not the same as other chesty noises. It can sometimes be hard to hear so your child’s doctor may need to listen for it with a stethoscope.
- A ‘tummy ache’ is how children might describe it.
- They might rub their tummy or chest.
- Look to see how fast your child is breathing and listen to how their breathing sounds.
- Watch to see if they’re using lots of their body when they breathe – for example shrugging their shoulders up and down.
- Does your child get out of breath playing, or stay out of breath for longer?
- Does your child avoid activity because they get breathless?
The good news is that the right treatment can settle your child’s symptoms. So, book an appointment with your GP.
It’s OK to ask for an appointment as soon as possible. To explain the seriousness, you could say things like “My child isn’t breathing well.” Mention your child’s age too.
You can also call 111 if you’re worried about your child’s symptoms.
As a parent, it is easy to feel that you’re worrying too much, or that you’ll be bothering your doctor. But I would always want to know if one of my patients was getting these symptoms.
Call 999 if your child is struggling to breathe
Look out for these signs that your child is struggling to breathe:
- Their tummy sucking in
- Their ribs standing out
- Obvious sucking in at the front of their throat
- Not being able to finish sentences or eat because they’re so breathless
- The reliever inhaler, if your child has one, is not working
- They’re unusually quiet or agitated
- Their reliever inhaler, if they have one, is not working.
Remember, you know your child best and it’s always best to call 999 if you’re worried.
Find out more about asthma attacks in children.