Asthma treatment in young children

The treatment goals for young children with asthma are to:

  • Treat inflammation in the airways, usually with daily medication, to prevent asthma attacks
  • Use short-acting drugs to treat asthma attacks
  • Avoid or minimize the effect of asthma triggers
  • Maintain normal activity levels

Your doctor will use a stepwise approach for treating your child's asthma. The goal is overall management with a minimum number of asthma attacks that require short-term treatment.

This means that initially the type or dosage of treatment may be increased until the asthma is stable. When it is stable for a period of time, your doctor may then step down the treatment, so that your child takes the minimum drug treatment needed to remain stable. If your doctor determines at some point that your child is using a short-acting drug too often, then the long-term treatment will be stepped up to a higher dose or additional medication.

This stepwise approach may result in changes up or down over time, depending on each child's response to treatment and overall growth and development, as well as on seasonal changes or changes in activity levels.

Medications for long-term control

Long-term control, or maintenance, medications are usually taken daily. Types of long-term control medications include the following:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids are the most commonly used long-term asthma control drugs for children under age 5, as well as the preferred treatment according to the National Asthma Education and Prevention guidelines. Easily administered inhaled corticosteroids available to infants and preschool children include budesonide (Pulmicort Flexhaler, Pulmicort Respules), fluticasone (Flovent HFA) and beclomethasone (Qvar).
  • Leukotriene modifiers may be added to a treatment plan when an inhaled corticosteroid treatment alone does not result in stable asthma management. The drug montelukast (Singulair) is approved in a chewable tablet form for children age 2 to 6 and in a granular form that can be added to pureed food for children as young as 1.
  • Long-acting beta agonist is an inhaled drug that can be added to a corticosteroid treatment regimen. The drug salmeterol is a long-acting beta agonist combined with an inhaled corticosteroid as a single-dose inhaled medication (Advair HFA).
  • Cromolyn is an inhaled drug that blocks inflammatory events and may be used as an add-on treatment with inhaled corticosteroids. There is less evidence of the effectiveness of this treatment than the for the other long-term control drugs appropriated for young children.
  • Oral corticosteroids are used only when asthma management cannot be controlled with other treatments.

Short-acting medications

These medications — called short-acting bronchodilators — provide immediate relief of asthma symptoms, and effects last four to six hours. Short-acting bronchodilators for asthma include albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others) and levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA).

For children with mild, intermittent asthma symptoms, the short-acting medication may be the only treatment needed.

For young children who have persistent asthma and use long-term control drugs, the short-acting drug is used as a quick-relief, or rescue, medication to treat asthma attacks. It may also be used to prevent asthma symptoms triggered by exercise.

Overuse of short-acting medications usually indicates that the long-term control treatment plan needs to be revised.

Medication delivery devices

Most asthma medications are given with a device called a metered dose inhaler that requires a correctly timed deep breath to get medications to the lungs. Attachments for metered dose inhalers and other devices can make it easier for children under age 5 to get an appropriate dose. These devices include:

  • Valved holding chamber with mask. A valved holding chamber with a face mask can be attached to a metered dose inhaler. The chamber allows a child to inhale the medication and doesn't allow exhaling into the device. The mask enables your child to take six normal breaths to get the same dosage as inhaling a single large puff of medication.
  • Nebulizer. A nebulizer turns medications into a fine mist your child breathes in through a face mask. Young children often need to use a nebulizer because it's difficult or impossible for them to use other inhaler devices.

Asthma control: Steps for children under age 5

You can best manage your child's asthma by following these tips.

Create an action plan

Your doctor can help you create a written action plan that you can use at home and share with other family member, friends, preschool teachers and sitters. A thorough plan includes such things as the following:

  • Your child's name and age
  • Physician and emergency contact information
  • The type, dose and timing of long-term medications
  • The type and dose of rescue medication
  • A list of common asthma triggers for your child and tips for avoiding them
  • A system for rating normal breathing, moderate symptoms and severe symptoms
  • Instructions for what to do when symptoms occur and when to use rescue medication

Monitor and record

Keep a record of your child's symptoms and treatment schedule to share with your child's doctor. These records can help your doctor determine if the long-term control treatment plan is effective and make adjustments to the plan. Keep appointments as recommend by your doctor to review records and adjust your action plan as necessary. Information you record should include:

  • The time, duration and circumstances of an asthma attack
  • Treatment responses to asthma attacks
  • Medication side effects
  • Changes in your child's symptoms
  • Changes in activity levels or sleep patterns

Control asthma triggers

Depending on the triggers for your child's asthma, make adjustments at home, as well as in child care facilities and other environments, to minimize your child's exposure to triggers. These may include:

  • Cleaning thoroughly to control dust and pet dander
  • Checking pollen count reports
  • Removing cleaning products or other household products that may be an irritant
  • Administering allergy medicine as directed by your doctor
  • Teaching your child hand washing and other habits to minimize colds
  • Teaching your child to understand and avoid triggers
Sept. 20, 2016 See more In-depth