Although wheezing is a common asthma symptom, other conditions, including viral respiratory infections, can also cause this whistling sound as babies breathe in or out. Some babies only wheeze when they have colds or an upper respiratory tract infection. This makes it more challenging for doctors to diagnose asthma in babies.
Babies whom doctors diagnose with asthma sometimes eventually outgrow wheezing, but asthma symptoms don’t always improve as a child grows. Therefore, if your baby numbers among the more than 7 million children in the U.S. affected by asthma, it’s important to learn more about this chronic lung disease, particularly its symptoms and treatment.
Why Wheezing Occurs
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that narrows the airways inside the lungs. Although there is no cure for asthma, how often your baby experiences symptoms, in addition to the severity of the symptoms, may change as he or she grows.
Wheezing is a sign of a blockage in the small airways that carry oxygen to the lungs. These same airways also carry carbon dioxide out of the lungs. When inflammation swells the airways, the muscles around them tighten. As the airways narrow, less air flows into your baby’s lungs.
Narrow airways also trap carbon dioxide inside the lungs — a condition that can affect your infant’s lung function.
How to Recognize Other Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of infant asthma vary, but the types of symptoms are the same as those that older children and adults suffer. Your baby may also be irritable and not feed well. Rapid breathing or shortness of breath can make it difficult for a baby to nurse.
Other signs that your baby may have asthma include flaring nostrils while breathing, a sucking in of the skin around the ribs when inhaling, and grunting sounds when your infant breathes out. Each of these is a sign that your baby is having difficulty breathing.
If your baby has allergies, atopic dermatitis, or eczema along with wheezing and a persistent cough, he or she may have asthma, especially if there is a family history of the disease. A nighttime cough, in particular, is often a sign of asthma.
What Happens During an Asthma Attack
When your baby has an asthma attack, irritated and swollen airways make it hard for him or her to breathe. During an acute asthma attack, the lining of the airways produces more mucus, which can narrow the airways more. These conditions cause the symptoms of wheezing, coughing, and rapid breathing.
How to Prevent an Asthma Attack
Your baby can have an asthma attack if he or she comes into contact with an allergen or other irritant such as dust mites, mold, animal dander, or tobacco smoke. Besides avoiding triggers, there are other ways to stop your baby from having an asthma attack.
Depending on your baby’s age, medications to relieve spasms in the airway can be administered by way of a nebulizer machine or asthma inhaler. Either way, medication known as bronchodilators act quickly to help your baby breathe better.
A nebulizer machine changes liquid medication into a mist that your baby breathes in through a mask. However, your baby’s pediatrician or pediatric allergist may prescribe an inhaler instead. In that case, your baby inhales the medicine through a mask. You administer the medicine by what looks like a small aerosol can that you insert into the mouthpiece of the inhaler.
How to Prevent Asthma Attacks
Most children receive more than one medication to control their asthma symptoms. But to prevent asthma attacks from occurring, your child’s doctor may prescribe daily inhaled corticosteroids. These medications reduce inflammation in order to help reduce wheezing and other breathing problems.
Studies show that although inhaled corticosteroid treatment in young children does not prevent the development of chronic asthma, it does provide symptom relief. Results show that children experience less severe and more infrequent symptoms during the time they receive treatment with inhaled corticosteroids.
Contact the physicians at Allergy & Asthma Centers if you are worried that your infant may have asthma or if you need more information about the treatment options available.