Preschool wheeze

Find out what wheezing in your baby or child might mean, how it is different to asthma, and how you can help your child. Preschool wheeze is wheezing in children aged up to five years old who haven’t yet been diagnosed with asthma.

What is preschool wheeze?

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that you can usually hear when someone breathes out. It can be heard from the chest and is caused by the airways narrowing.  

Preschool wheeze is when children under the age of five wheeze. It is very common and 1 in 3 children will have an episode of wheezing by the time they are three years old.    

Children under the age of five wheeze more easily than older children and adults because their airways are smaller.

Is wheeze the same as asthma?

An episode of wheezing can look like an asthma attack. But having a wheezing episode under the age of five doesn’t always mean your child has asthma.  

There are many causes of wheezing in children, and most preschool children who wheeze do not go on to develop asthma. 

A wheeze is more likely to be asthma if your child has symptoms like coughing and wheezing, even when they don’t have a cough or cold. They may also be more likely to develop asthma if there is family history of asthma, eczema, food allergies, or hay fever (or if they have eczema themselves).

What causes preschool wheeze?

Wheezing in preschool children is usually caused by colds and viruses, like bronchiolitis. Wheeze can also be caused by:  

What is viral wheeze?

It’s very common for young children to wheeze when they have a cold or virus. This is usually diagnosed as viral wheeze.

We know from parents that it can be scary to see your child wheezing or struggling for breath. A viral wheeze is usually nothing to worry about, as long as your child seems well in general. But if they are unwell or breathless with the wheeze, or you are at all worried, see your GP as soon as possible or call 111. Coughing and wheezing should get better within two weeks of getting ill.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have created a viral wheeze action plan which can help you to look after your child’s viral wheeze.  

Call your child’s GP or 111 urgently if any or all of these happen

  • They’re wheezing and breathless and their reliever inhaler isn’t lasting for four hours. If they don’t have a reliever inhaler, see your GP or call 111 straight away.  
  • They’re ‘working hard to breathe’, meaning their neck muscles and ribs are sucking in. If you’re not sure, take a video to show your GP. 
  • They’re coughing and wheezing more than usual, particularly at night.  
  • They’re too breathless to run around and play.
  • If you are at all worried about your child.

How is preschool wheeze diagnosed?

Your child’s GP or nurse will usually listen to their chest using a stethoscope to listen for wheezing sounds.

Your child may be diagnosed with a viral wheeze if they are under five years old and are wheezing alongside a viral infection.  

If your child is wheezing outside of having a viral infection, they may need further tests to find out the cause of the wheeze. This is known as recurrent episodes of wheezing.

We know from parents that it can be confusing when your child is diagnosed with a wheeze. It’s important to know that if your child is diagnosed with a wheeze, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have asthma or will go on to have asthma. 

How is preschool wheeze treated?

Preschool wheeze may be treated with some of the same medicines as asthma. However, this does not mean your child has been diagnosed with asthma. Your child’s treatment will be based on their current symptoms.

Your child may be prescribed:  

  • a reliever inhaler to treat sudden symptoms of wheeze  
  • a preventer inhaler to help dampen down the inflammation in your child’s lungs and prevent the symptoms of wheeze.

They may be prescribed one or both of these medicines. They are more likely to be prescribed a preventer inhaler if they wheeze in between colds and viruses. 

How can I help my child?

Understand your child’s symptoms

Alongside any prescribed treatment, like inhalers, you can help your child by:

  • offering them smaller but more frequent feeds if they aren’t feeding well
  • keeping them well-hydrated
  • giving them paracetamol if they have a temperature (38 degrees Celsius or higher)
  • trying to identify any triggers that might set off your child’s wheeze.

As a parent, you’ll know if there’s something wrong with your child. Trust your instincts and call their GP or 111 if you think your child needs to be seen.

Help your child to use their inhaler

If your child has been prescribed an inhaler, they should use it with a spacer. We have more information on how to help your child use their inhaler, and how to help your baby or toddler use their inhaler.

It can be difficult to give an inhaler to a preschooler. Our helpline can also give you advice and support.

We also have information on how to look after inhalers and spacers.

Keep your child away from smoke

Where possible, keep your child away from second-hand smoke. This is because it can cause wheezing in children. If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health and your child’s health is to quit. We have more information on how to stop smoking.

Find out what makes your child’s wheeze worse

Your child’s wheeze might be triggered by certain things like being very active, stress, pets, dust, pollution and pollen. Smoke from candles or cleaning sprays can also cause wheezing. It’s helpful if you can keep a record of when symptoms seem to get better or worse, and whether the inhalers your child has been given help. 

More support for parents

Join our parent and carer support network. It’s a free support network for parents and carers of children with any lung condition or problems. The events are held online on Zoom every month. Each meeting has a different topic and is organised by healthcare professionals.  

If you are worried that your child might have asthma, we have more information for parents about getting your child diagnosed

Get support

Call or WhatsApp our Helpline for support with your condition. Get advice on your medicines, symptoms or travelling with a lung condition, or just call us to say hello.

Did you find this information useful?

We use your comments to improve our information. We cannot reply to comments left on this form. If you have health concerns or need clinical advice, call our helpline on 0300 222 5800 between 9am and 5pm on a weekday or email them.

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