Diagnosing asthma in children

Asthma UK's Child Action Plan
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There isn’t a single, quick, easy test to find out if your child has asthma. To help make a diagnosis, your GP or asthma nurse will ask about your child's symptoms and when they're worse. They'll also ask lots of questions, for example: does anyone else have asthma or allergies in the family? Did your child have breathing problems as a baby? Was your baby born prematurely? All these questions help the GP or asthma nurse get a full picture of your child's life so far, and the things that might be causing their symptoms. They may also listen to your child’s chest to find out if there are any wheezy sounds.

A peak flow test might be useful
If your child is old enough to be able to use a peak flow meter to measure how well their lungs are working, your GP or asthma nurse may ask you to keep a peak flow diary over a period of time. Getting a clear result over time does depend on how well your child can use the peak flow meter, and if they're blowing into it with the same amount of effort every time, so it's not always reliable. 

Asthma symptoms may not be there all the time
Symptoms can come and go. Your GP or asthma nurse will want to know if your child has been experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • wheezing
  • coughing, especially at night, or in the morning
  • difficulty breathing
  • a tight, sore feeling in their chest (children often describe this as 'chest hurting' or 'tummy ache')

Your GP or asthma nurse is more likely to diagnose asthma if:

  • your child has symptoms a lot and they keep coming back, even when they don't have a cold or virus
  • they have symptoms in between colds (these are sometimes called ‘interval’ symptoms)
  • their symptoms are more obvious at night, in the early morning or after exercise
  • symptoms develop when your child's around pets, cold or damp air, or other asthma triggers
  • they have a family history of asthma or allergy, such as hay fever or eczema
  • their symptoms get better after a ‘trial of treatment’ 
  • there's no other possible explanation for the symptoms

Diagnosing children under the age of two 

If your child is under the age of two it’s difficult to tell if they have asthma because:

  • nearly one-third of very young children will have wheezing at some point. Over time, most of them will stop wheezing as their airways grow; however for others early wheezing can be a sign they will get asthma in later childhood or adult life.
  • it isn’t easy to measure how well a young child’s lungs are working. A peak flow meter is used for older children who are able to use it, but is unsuitable for children under the age of six.

Confirming a diagnosis

If asthma is likely, a ‘trial of treatment’ will be given to see if your child gets better. Even if they don’t have asthma, the doses of medicines prescribed are very low. The benefits of taking them far outweigh any potential side effects.

If a diagnosis is unclear or your child doesn’t respond to the trial of treatment, tests may be carried out. Often, a ‘watch and wait’ approach will be taken. You might be asked to keep a record of symptoms and note down anything that seems to make them better or worse.

If asthma’s diagnosed

Asthma is a long term condition which can be well managed with regular asthma medicines. Asthma can be serious though, and if not treated properly can lead to asthma attacks, which can be life threatening. But with the right medicines, taken properly and as prescribed, your child should be able to enjoy a life without symptoms. You can help by:

  • Taking your child for regular asthma reviews

It's important to book in a scheduled asthma review for your child, ideally every six months or at least annually, even if their asthma symptoms are well managed. This is so the GP or asthma nurse can see how they’re doing and check their medicines in case the dose needs to be adjusted. It’s also an opportunity to talk through their written asthma action plan, check their inhaler technique, discuss any triggers, their environment, and any other factors that may affect their asthma, such as colds and hayfever. 

  • Encouraging your child to take their preventer medicines every day

To keep well with their asthma your child needs to take their preventer medicine every day as prescribed, usually morning and evening.

  • Following a written asthma action plan

Research shows this is the best way to manage your child's asthma - find out more about Asthma UK's award winning My Asthma plan for children

  • Avoiding smoking

If you're a smoker you'll find your child's asthma is harder to manage and your child’s asthma medicine may not work as well. Being around tobacco smoke will also make your child's asthma symptoms worse. You can find helpful information on how to stop smoking here.

Click here to download a My Asthma Action Plan

Children's diagnosis - Q&A  Children’s diagnosis – Q&A

If you’re wondering whether your child will ‘grow out’ of their asthma, want to know what ‘wheeze’ is, or are feeling unclear about the difference between reliever and preventer inhalers, ease your worries with our expert guide.

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Family looking at Asthma UK materials on a sofa Looking after my child’s asthma

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Caring for a child with severe or difficult asthma  Caring for a child with severe or difficult asthma

If you’ve been told your child has severe or difficult asthma you’re understandably going to be worried, and sometimes frightened.

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Children with asthma at nursery Nursery and childcare

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It's important to work in partnership with your child's school if your child has asthma.

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