Understand your child’s asthma

Knowing the signs to look out for means you can act quickly when your child's asthma gets worse.

Just as every child is an individual in the way they walk, talk, eat, play and see the world, every child’s asthma is different too.

“It’s important to know the typical asthma signs and symptoms, but your child may also have their own individual signs and symptoms too,” says Asthma UK asthma nurse specialist Debby Waddell.

“Once you know the early warning signs to look out for in your child you’ll know when to get help and support when their asthma’s getting worse.”

Asthma symptoms can come on gradually

In most children, symptoms can build up over a few days before they have an asthma attack. This gives you a ‘window of opportunity’ to act before things get worse.

Once you know what their early warning signs and symptoms are, you can step in before your child has an asthma attack.

“It’s still important to remember though, that sometimes an asthma attack can come on more quickly, in just a couple of hours,” says Debby.

“So always have your child’s reliever inhaler with you.”

Typical asthma signs to look out for

These are all typical signs of asthma getting worse in children. Your child may have one of them, or a few of them.

Any one of these signs and symptoms means you need to act to make sure their asthma doesn’t get any worse.

Your child is:

  • using their reliever inhaler (usually blue) three or more times a week
  • wheezing, coughing, being short of breath and/or saying their chest feels tight
  • waking at night with coughing or wheezing
  • needing time off nursery or school because of their asthma
  • struggling to do their normal activities or exercise
  • getting a lower than usual peak flow reading
  • unable to walk as far or as fast as usual or being breathless when they do.

“Use your child’s written asthma action plan so you feel more confident knowing the symptoms that mean your child’s asthma is getting worse, and know what to do if you notice them,” says Debby. “You could keep a copy of the plan on the fridge or a photo of it on your phone.”

Know your child’s individual asthma signs

As well as the typical signs listed above, your child may have their own individual symptoms when their asthma’s getting worse.

Recognising these signs can help you spot if your child needs help before it becomes an emergency.

Here are some of the early warning signs parents see in their children when their asthma’s getting worse. 

Some parents notice their child:

  • behaves differently, for example going quiet, becoming very agitated, nervous or frightened, seeming distracted, and being clingy
  • can't talk or complete sentences
  • complains of a tummy ache and/or goes off their food
  • says that their ribs ache
  • seems more tired than usual
  • doesn't want to do their usual activities, perhaps because they’re very tired
  • cries more than usual
  • finds it hard to breathe, or shows signs of having to make a big effort to breathe, such as their shoulders heaving, or the hollow above the collarbone sinking
  • is breathing faster, or more shallowly.

If you notice your child’s finding it hard to breathe at any point call 999.

 “Make a list of your child’s symptoms and the signs you noticed leading up to the last time they had an asthma attack. Ask your child how they felt too,” says Debby.   

“Your GP may be able to add these to your child’s asthma action plan so you have a record and can share it with other people who care for your child too.”

Talk to your child about their asthma signs and symptoms

Your child might not be with you some of the time, so it’s important to help them recognise the signs that their asthma is getting worse.

“Talk to your child about the early signs of their asthma getting worse,” says Debby.

“For example, you could say: 'Last time you weren’t very well with your asthma, you said your chest hurt and you felt very tired the day before.'

“And make sure they know to tell an adult if they get symptoms again.”

Your child’s asthma can change over time

Remember that asthma can change over time. Your child may no longer get their usual symptoms, or develop new symptoms. They might also describe how they feel differently as they get older, or feel embarrassed about talking about their asthma.

“Encourage your child to tell you if they don’t feel well, even if they don’t have their usual asthma symptoms,” says Debby.

“And make a note of any new symptoms so you can speak to your child’s GP or asthma nurse at your child's asthma review and update their action plan.”

Take action when your child’s asthma gets worse

Knowing what your child’s signs and symptoms are means you can take the right action at the right time.

If your child’s symptoms are coming back or getting worse: 

1. Follow the advice on your child’s written asthma action plan

2. Make an appointment to see your child’s GP or asthma nurse within 24 hours, or sooner if you’re worried

3. Call 999 for an ambulance if:

  • your child is needing their blue reliever inhaler more than every four hours
  • they’ve had 10 puffs of their reliever inhaler and don’t feel any better
  • you’re worried at any point, even if your child hasn’t yet taken 10 puffs of their reliever inhaler.

How other parents spot their child’s asthma signs

  • “Our youngest, when he is getting worse, often gets naughty and then gets very distressed, crying non-stop, whinging and then getting wheezy.” Sarah, mum to Thomas, 13, and William, 3, who both have asthma.
  • “Don't let anyone fob you off - you know your own child. When Corey was having an asthma attack, the hollow above his collar bone sucked in deep. You’ll notice individual signs with your child, too.”  Cheryl, mum to Corey, now 20, who has had asthma from a young age
  • “I can see Zane’s neck and stomach muscles straining, and hear a high-pitched noise, especially if I put my ear to his chest.” Hayley, mum to Zak, 10, and Zane, 8, who both have asthma
  • “I know that just because I can’t hear Beau wheeze, it doesn’t mean he’s not struggling to breathe.” Anna, mum to Gabriel, 10, and Beau, 5

For more advice, you can speak to our specialist asthma nurses on 0300 222 5800 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm) or message them on WhatsApp on 07378 606728 


Last updated November 2019

Next review due November 2022