Anyone can get asthma, and it can start at any time of life.  Asthma often runs in the family, although not everyone in the family will have it. Many people with asthma may also have hay-fever or eczema, and a family history of these conditions, and a child is more likely to have asthma if these other conditions run in the family.  A child born into a family where parents or other close relatives already have other allergies or asthma has a higher than normal chance of developing an allergic condition – boys more so than girls. The chance is increased if both parents are affected.

Asthma in children

Girl And Doctor

One in seven kids experiences asthma symptoms. A lot of children seem to ‘grow out of asthma’ by their teens, although they may get it back in later life. However, in adults and in children with severe asthma, it tends to remain.

One third of all children under one year old will have episodes of wheezing and coughing. For some of them this is not much more than noisy breathing (wheeze), and most will not experience these symptoms after the age of three. 

It is often very difficult to pick out the infants with asthma from the rest as there is no “asthma test” available. The diagnosis of asthma may remain uncertain for many months.

Parents and caregivers of children with asthma should make sure that their child has a child asthma plan (completed with a health professional/ GP), is immunised against influenza each year and uses their preventer medications as prescribed, rather than just relying on their relievers when their asthma gets bad. Your doctor, nurse or asthma educator can show you how to fill in a Child Asthma Symptom Diary. The information obtained from this over several weeks will help clarify whether your child has asthma. When asthma is getting worse, there may be an increase in symptoms, night waking, an increase in the Symptom Diary’s ‘Asthma Symptom Score,’ or the child’s reliever might be used with less and less effect.

Once the child reaches about six years, they can use a peak flow meter. Blowing into one of these measures how well the lungs are working. Peak flow meters are available free of charge from the doctor.

Children who live in a home with smokers are more likely to have respiratory infections – these infections are a known trigger for asthma. It has been shown that children with asthma whose parents smoke have more asthma symptoms than children whose parents don’t smoke. Also, exposure of young babies to cigarette smoke increases the risk of asthma and bronchial problems. If a woman smokes during pregnancy, the chemicals in the smoke are passed on to the baby. These chemicals affect the cells of the developing lungs. This may increase the baby’s chances of having lung problems such as asthma.

Click here for a guide on inhalers for children.

Click here for a Child Asthma Plan.

Adult Onset Asthma

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Adult onset asthma refers to the onset of asthma for the first time in someone of middle age or older. The usual symptoms of asthma are generally present – varying degrees of breathlessness, wheeze and productive cough. However, there are some features that make adult onset asthma different to that seen in the younger age group. 

We do not understand why symptoms develop at a certain age; or why they might disappear. For some people, adult onset asthma may be due to the recurrence of childhood asthma, illness, ‘recurrent bronchitis’ or ‘wheezy bronchitis’.

Smoking does not cause adult onset asthma, although it can trigger an attack. Tobacco smoking causes Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which has similar symptoms of breathlessness, cough and sometimes wheeze.

Sometimes other illnesses seen in adults can be hard to separate from adult onset asthma. Certain forms of heart disease which cause fluid retention can affect breathing and cause wheezing which may seem like adult onset asthma. Other illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis and related conditions can cause a form of inflammation called bronchiolitis.

In contrast to childhood asthma, adult onset asthma is more commonly persistent and permanent. Medications are often needed continuously to help keep adult onset asthma under control. One of the difficulties in adult life is that lung function tends to fall after middle age. Certain conditions such as smoking or asthma may be associated with a faster rate of deterioration of lung function. If asthma is under-treated in adult life, there is a risk that lung function may deteriorate more quickly and never recover. In some cases it is best to use regular medication in order to protect lung function all the time, rather than risk permanent deterioration. For treatment, the key issue is to maintain best lung function at all times. Because adult onset asthma more often causes persistent symptoms, preventive medication is more commonly prescribed to help prevent permanent impairment of lung capacity.

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Useful Asthma Resources

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Asthma Breathing And Physical Activity

Asthma: Breathing and Physical Activity

An information booklet on keeping active with asthma.

Controlling Your Asthma

Controlling your Asthma

An information booklet with seven steps to help you learn to control your asthma and lead the life you want.

What Is Asthma

What is Asthma

An information booklet on symptoms, triggers, management strategies, medicines and steps to take in an asthma emergency.​

Children And Asthma

Children and Asthma

An information booklet on symptoms, inhaler use, medicines, physical activity and asthma friendly schools.