Management of Childhood Asthma

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oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also the separate article on Diagnosing Childhood Asthma in Primary Care.

Asthma is the most common respiratory disorder of children. Chronic inflammation of the bronchial mucosa and hyper-reactive airways results in bronchoconstriction and reversible airway narrowing. It typically presents with wheeze, dry cough, difficulty breathing and/or chest tightness.

Managing childhood asthma involves both an appreciation of current treatment practice and also a willingness to educate and support the child and their family in the longer term. Different phenotypes of childhood asthma are increasingly being recognised:[1]

  • Transient early wheezers where wheezing is commonly associated with viral upper respiratory infections. This is most likely to be grown out of by about 3 years, particularly in those children without a family or personal history of atopy.
  • Non-atopic wheezers who again are likely to outgrow symptoms by early school age.
  • Children who go on to develop a more persistent, atopic asthma, associated with raised immunoglobulin E (IgE) levels.

Acute asthma is a relatively common paediatric emergency. Treat acute asthma as severe until proven otherwise and refer children who respond inadequately to community treatment urgently to hospital. Severe asthma in children is the third most common cause of hospital admission and the most common cause of paediatric intensive care unit (ICU) admission.[2][3] 

Presentation

It is vital to recognise the severity of an acute asthma attack. Clinical signs are a poor indicator of the degree of airways obstruction and some with acute severe asthma may not appear distressed.

Always assess and record:

  • Pulse rate.
  • Respiratory rate.
  • Degree of breathlessness (eg, ability to complete sentences, to feed).
  • Use of accessory muscles of respiration (feel the neck muscles for involvement in breathing).
  • Amount of wheezing (with increasing severity, wheeze may become biphasic or less apparent).
  • Degree of agitation and conscious level.
Clinical assessment of the severity of an acute asthma attack in those aged over 2 years[4] 
Acute severe
  • Unable to complete sentences in one breath.
  • Unable to feed or talk.
  • Pulse >125 in those aged over 5 years or >140 in 2- to 5-year-olds.
  • Respiratory rate >30 in those aged over 5 and >40 in 2- to 5-year-olds.
Life-threatening
  • Silent chest.
  • Cyanosis.
  • Poor respiratory effort.
  • Hypotension.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Confusion.
  • Coma.
Clinical assessment of the severity of an acute asthma attack in those aged under 2 years[4] 
Acute severe
  • Oxygen saturations <92%.
  • Peak flow 33-50% best or predicted.
  • Cyanosed.
  • Marked respiratory distress.
  • Too breathless to feed.
Life-threatening
  • Oxygen saturation below 92%
  • Peak flow <33% best predicted.
  • Apnoea.
  • Bradycardia.
  • Poor respiratory effort.

Children should be monitored carefully and assessed repeatedly to determine the need for admission to secondary care or for transfer to a high-dependency unit (HDU) or paediatric intensive care unit (PICU), where there are features of poorly responsive severe asthma or life-threatening asthma.

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Investigations

Include:[4] 

  • Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) in children aged over 5 years (use best of three readings, expressed as a % of personal best PEFR).
  • Oxygen saturation - should be available in primary care, as low oxygen saturations (<92%) after initial bronchodilator therapy indicate a more severe subgroup of patients, in whom inpatient treatment may be required.
  • CXRs and arterial blood gases are not routinely indicated as their information yield is rarely high.

Management[4] 

With children aged over 2 years:

  • Children with severe or life-threatening asthma should be transferred to hospital urgently.
  • Give calm reassurance at all times.
  • Children with life-threatening asthma or SpO2 <94% should receive high-flow oxygen via face mask or nasal cannula at sufficient flow rates to achieve normal saturations of 94-98%.
  • Inhaled beta2 agonists are the first-line treatment for acute asthma:
      • Delivery via a pressurised metered dose inhaler (pMDI) and spacer is preferred in mild-to-moderate asthma as there is less tachycardia and hypoxia compared with delivery via a nebuliser. Children aged under 3 years normally require a face mask attached to the spacer.
      • 2-4 puffs of beta2 agonists repeated every 20-30 minutes according to clinical response may be sufficient for a mild attack but severe attacks may require up to 10 puffs: drug dosing should be individualised according to severity of attack and response.
      • Those children not improving after receiving up to 10 puffs of beta2 agonists in primary care should be referred to secondary care. Continue to give further doses of bronchodilator whilst awaiting transfer.
        Low threshold for admission when:
        • The attack is late in the day or at night.
        • Recent hospital admission or previous severe attack.
        • Concerns regarding social circumstance or ability to cope at home.
    • Blue light those with poorly responding severe or life-threatening asthma, who should receive oxygen and nebulised beta2 agonists (2.5-5 mg salbutamol or 5-10 mg terbutaline) in transit.
    • Nebulised beta2 agonists should be repeated every 20-30 minutes - frequent intermittent doses are as efficacious as equivalent continuous nebulised doses.
  • Steroid therapy - early use reduces hospital admissions and can prevent symptom relapse:
    • Oral steroids are of similar efficacy to intravenous preparations, which should be reserved for the acutely unwell child who cannot swallow.
      Oral prednisolone in an acute asthma attack:
      • Start early in the attack.
      • Use 20 mg prednisolone for children aged 2-5 years and 30-40 mg for those aged over 5 years.
      • For children on maintenance steroid treatment, give 2 mg/kg prednisolone to a maximum of 60 mg.
      • Repeat the dose in children who vomit.
      • Three days of treatment are usually sufficient, but tailor according to the length necessary for recovery.
    • There is insufficient evidence that initiating or increasing inhaled steroids is effective in treating acute symptoms. Always give steroid tablets in preference.
    • For children aged 2 years and over, give oral steroids early in the treatment of acute asthma attacks.
    • For children aged less than 2 years, consider steroid tablets early in the management of severe asthma attacks in the hospital setting.
  • Additional emergency treatment:
    • Intravenous (IV) salbutamol - early addition of a bolus dose (15 micrograms/kg) can be a useful adjunct to nebulised treatment in some severe cases. Continuous infusion may be required where there is severe refractory asthma or there are concerns about reliability of inhalation. Doses exceeding 1-2 micrograms/kg/minute require PICU monitoring.
    • Nebulised ipratropium bromide - where symptoms are refractory to initial beta2 agonist treatment, the addition of ipratropium bromide (250 micrograms/dose, mixed with the nebulised beta2 agonist solution) is of benefit in the first two hours of a severe asthma attack.
    • IV aminophylline should only be considered in children with severe or life-threatening bronchospasm who have not responded to other treatment, in an HDU or a PICU setting.
    • IV magnesium sulfate - is a safe treatment for acute asthma but its place in management is not yet established.

Intermittent wheezing attacks in children aged under 2 are usually in response to viral infection and management remains controversial:

  • Beta2 agonist bronchodilators may offer marginal benefits to those aged under 2 with wheeze and should be considered if the child is symptomatically distressed. If they are not effective, consider the use of other treatment options. For mild-to-moderate attacks, use a pMDI plus spacer and face mask. Do not use oral beta2 agonists, which have little evidence for efficacy in this context.
  • Oral steroid treatment - consider 10 mg soluble prednisolone early in management and for up to three days in the management of severe acute asthma attacks in the hospital setting.
  • Ipratropium bromide can be combined with an inhaled beta2 agonist where there are more severe symptoms.

Much of the management of asthma has been delegated to asthma nurses - either within the practice or within the community.

It is very important to consider the upper respiratory tract when treating asthma. It is much more difficult to treat asthma successfully if co-existing allergic rhinitis (perennial or seasonal) is not adequately controlled.[5]  

Non-drug[4] 

  • Allergen avoidance - commonly recommended in patients with asthma but there is a lack of good evidence showing its efficacy:[6]  
    • House dust mite - a Cochrane review concluded that chemical and physical methods of house dust mite avoidance could not currently be recommended.[7] However, some families are very committed to trigger avoidance and suggestions can include:
      • Complete bed-covering barrier systems.
      • Removing all carpets.
      • Removing soft toys from bed.
      • High-temperature washing of bed linen.
      • Acaricides to soft furnishings.
      • Improving ventilation with or without dehumidification.
    • Pet allergy - there are no controlled trials looking at removing domestic pets. There is varied anecdotal evidence with some experiencing no benefit on removing the pet and others, with continuing exposure to the pet, developing some tolerance. However, it seems sensible not to have a cat or dog if someone in the family already has asthma.
  • Dietary manipulation - studies looking at supplementation with vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and fish oil have not shown significantly beneficial effects.[6] 
  • Complementary and alternative therapies:
    • Individual trials report positive effects of breathing exercises, but no reliable conclusions can be drawn concerning the use of breathing exercises for asthma in clinical practice. However, trends for improvement are encouraging.[8] 
    • There is insufficient evidence to recommend acupuncture, herbal or Chinese medicines, homeopathy, hypnosis or relaxation therapies.
    • Air ionisers offer no benefit to the treatment of asthma.
  • Smoking cessation advice to caregivers and teenagers with asthma. Direct or passive smoking reduces lung function and increases the need for rescue medication and long-term 'preventer' treatment.
  • Physical exercise therapy - may increase overall fitness but is of no specific benefit to asthma.
  • Family therapy - where asthma is difficult to control, this may be a useful adjunct.
  • Patient/carer education with the aim of creating partnership with family and child and confident self-care.
  • Written asthma action plans for self-management lead to consistently improved outcomes.[9]
  • Consider care links - eg, to school and transition to adult services. Schools should have their own asthma policy; staff are not required to administer asthma drugs except in an emergency but most are supportive of children with asthma and receptive to training in managing asthma and the correct way to administer inhaled drugs.
  • Links to local and national patient groups for support and information.

Drug[4] 

As for adult management of chronic asthma, current national guidelines advocate a stepwise approach.[4] Start at the step most appropriate to the initial severity of symptoms. Aim to achieve early control and then decrease treatment by stepping down to the lowest controlling step once stable. Always check concordance and reconsider diagnosis if response to treatment is poorer than anticipated. 

Management of chronic asthma in children aged under 5

Step 1: mild intermittent asthma - inhaled short-acting beta2 agonists as needed.
Step 2: regular preventer therapy - add inhaled steroid 200-400 micrograms/day (beclometasone diproprionate or equivalent) or leukotriene antagonist if inhaled steroid cannot be used. Start at the dose of inhaled steroid appropriate to the severity of the disease.
Step 3: add-on therapy - for children aged over 2, consider the addition of a leukotriene antagonist or inhaled steroid 200-400 micrograms/day (dependent on what drug they received already as Step 2). For children under 2 years, consider proceeding to Step 4.
Step 4: persistent poor control - refer to a respiratory paediatrician.

Management of chronic asthma in children aged 5-12 years

Step 1: mild intermittent asthma - inhaled short-acting beta2 agonists as needed.
Step 2: regular preventer therapy - add inhaled steroid 200-400 micrograms/day (beclometasone diproprionate or equivalent). 200 micrograms is an appropriate starting dose for most patients, but judge according to the severity of disease.
Step 3: add-on therapies - add in a long-acting inhaled beta2 agonist (LABA) but, if response is poor, stop. If the asthma is still not controlled, increase the dose of inhaled corticosteroid to 400 micrograms/day (beclometasone diproprionate or equivalent) and then add either a leukotriene receptor antagonist or slow-release theophylline.
Step 4: persistent poor control - increase inhaled steroid to 800 micrograms/day (beclometasone diproprionate or equivalent).
Step 5: continuous or frequent use of oral steroids - use in the lowest dose to provide control whilst maintaining high-dose inhaled steroids and refer to respiratory paediatricians.

Management of those aged over 12 is as for adults.

Beta2 agonists

  • Short-acting beta2 agonists work quickly and provide symptomatic relief. No benefits have been shown from regular dosing. Good asthma control is associated with little or no need for short-acting beta2 agonists. Using two or more canisters of beta2 agonists per month or >10-12 puffs per day, is a marker of poorly controlled asthma that puts individuals at risk of fatal or near-fatal asthma. Thus, patients overusing inhaled short-acting beta2 agonists should have their asthma management reviewed.
  • LABAs are useful in symptomatic control, particularly in the treatment of nocturnal asthma, but should not be used as relief for an acute attack. Any child using a LABA should also be using regular inhaled corticosteroid, as failure to do this increases the risk of life-threatening attacks. LABAs are the first-choice add-on therapy where control on normal-dose inhaled steroids remains suboptimum in children aged over 5.
  • Oral preparations of beta2 agonists have been used extensively in the past with children but are less effective than inhaled preparations and have more side-effects.

Inhaled corticosteroids

  • Regular inhaled corticosteroids are recommended where:[10] 
    • Beta2 agonists are being used more than two times per week.
    • Symptoms disturb sleep at least once a week.
    • A child has had an exacerbation in the previous two years requiring systemic corticosteroids.
  • They should be taken regularly and concordance may be an issue. Improvement in symptoms usually takes 3-7 days.
  • No impact on later development of asthma has been shown by early intervention with regular inhaled steroids in episodically wheezy children aged under 5.[11]
  • Systemic absorption:[10] 
    • High doses of inhaled corticosteroids used for prolonged periods can induce adrenal suppression. Inhaled corticosteroids have occasionally been associated with adrenal crisis and coma in children.
    • Excessive doses should therefore be avoided and the dose of an inhaled corticosteroid is no higher than necessary to keep a child's asthma under good control.
    • Growth restriction associated with systemic corticosteroid therapy does not seem to occur with recommended doses of inhaled corticosteroids; although initial growth velocity may be reduced, there appears to be no effect on achieving normal adult height.
  • Candidiasis of the throat and mouth may occur, particularly with higher doses of inhaled corticosteroids. Strategies to reduce the risk include use of a spacer and rinsing the mouth with water or cleaning the teeth following inhalation.

Leukotriene receptor antagonists

  • These are an option as 'add-on' therapy to poorly controlled asthma. In children aged over 5, a LABA and inhaled corticosteroids to a dose of 400 micrograms beclometasone diproprionate or equivalent should be trialled before their use.
  • Leukotriene receptor antagonists improve lung function, decrease exacerbations and improve symptoms in some patients but there appears to be wide individual difference in response.
  • They should not be considered 'steroid-sparing'.

Theophyllines

  • These are another option as 'add-on' therapy for children aged over 5.
  • There is little evidence demonstrating the increased benefit of one particular 'add-on' approach (further increase dose of inhaled steroids 800 micrograms beclometasone diproprionate, leukotriene receptor antagonist, oral theophylline or slow-release oral beta2 agonist) to guide choice.
  • Theophyllines and oral beta2 agonists are associated with higher risk of side-effects.
  • With any add-on therapy, have a trial for a predetermined time period and stop the therapy if, on assessment, it has no benefit.

Omalizumab[12] 

NICE recommends omalizumab as an option for treating severe persistent confirmed allergic IgE-mediated asthma as an add-on to optimised standard therapy in children aged 6 years and older who need continuous or frequent treatment with oral corticosteroids (defined as four or more courses in the previous year). Omalizumab should only be initiated by a specialist.

Optimised standard therapy is defined as a full trial of and, if tolerated, documented compliance with inhaled high-dose corticosteroids, long-acting beta2 agonists, leukotriene receptor antagonists, theophyllines, oral corticosteroids, and smoking cessation if clinically appropriate.  

Indications for specialist referral in children:[4] 

  • Diagnosis unclear or in doubt.
  • Symptoms present from birth or perinatal lung problem.
  • Excessive vomiting or posseting.
  • Severe upper respiratory tract infection.
  • Persistent wet or productive cough.
  • Family history of unusual chest disease.
  • Failure to thrive.
  • Nasal polyps.
  • Unexpected clinical findings - eg, focal signs, abnormal voice or cry, dysphagia, inspiratory stridor.
  • Failure to respond to conventional treatment (particularly inhaled corticosteroids above 400 micrograms per day or frequent use of steroid tablets).
  • Parental anxiety or need for reassurance.

Influenza vaccine - asthmatic children who require continuous or repeated use of inhaled/systemic steroids or with previous exacerbations requiring hospital admission should be immunised.[13] If children receive repeated systemic steroids sufficient to cause immunosuppression they also require pneumococcal vaccination.

  • MDI plus spacer device is the first-line choice for the delivery of inhaled corticosteroid therapy in those aged over 5.
  • Where poor compliance with MDI and spacer is likely to jeopardise good asthma control, alternative devices should be considered whilst still looking to minimise systemic absorption.
  • For those aged less than 5, corticosteroid and bronchodilator therapy should be delivered via MDI/spacer and face mask combination. Nebulisers may be considered where MDIs and spacers are not effective or if the child's clinical condition is poor.
  • Children and their carers need to be trained in the use of their chosen device prior to prescribing and suitability reviewed looking at compliance and technique.
  • Reduced quality of life.
  • Reduced growth, usually as a result of poor control rather than treatment.
  • Psychological morbidity - although differences appear to be the result of poor health rather than asthma itself.[16]
  • Absence from school and educational disadvantage.
  • In one study of children admitted to the PICU, there was a 22% complication rate (eg, aspiration pneumonia, ventilator-associated pneumonia, pneumomediastinum, pneumothorax and rhabdomyolysis), increased by intubation.[3] 

Further reading & references

  1. Russell G; Wheeze in preschool children. BMJ. 2008 Jun 16.
  2. Mannix R, Bachur R; Status asthmaticus in children. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2007 Jun;19(3):281-7.
  3. Carroll CL, Zucker AR; The increased cost of complications in children with status asthmaticus. Pediatr Pulmonol. 2007 Oct;42(10):914-9.
  4. British guideline on the management of asthma; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (Oct 2014)
  5. Allergic Rhinitis and its Impact on Asthma (ARIA) - 2010 Revision
  6. Currie GP, Devereux GS, Lee DK, et al; Recent developments in asthma management. BMJ. 2005 Mar 12;330(7491):585-9.
  7. Gotzsche PC, Johansen HK; House dust mite control measures for asthma. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Apr 16;(2):CD001187.
  8. Freitas DA, Holloway EA, Bruno SS, et al; Breathing exercises for adults with asthma. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Oct 1;10:CD001277. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001277.pub3.
  9. Thoonen BP, Schermer TR, Van Den Boom G, et al; Self-management of asthma in general practice, asthma control and quality of life: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax. 2003 Jan;58(1):30-6.
  10. British National Formulary
  11. Townshend J, Hails S, McKean M; Management of asthma in children. BMJ. 2007 Aug 4;335(7613):253-7.
  12. Asthma (severe, persistent, patients aged 6+, adults) - omalizumab; NICE Technology Appraisals, April 2013
  13. Immunisation against infectious disease - the Green Book (latest edition); Public Health England
  14. Inhaled corticosteroids for the treatment of chronic asthma in adults and in children aged 12 years and over; NICE Technology Appraisals, March 2008
  15. Inhaled corticosteroids for the treatment of chronic asthma in children under the age of 12 years; NICE Technology Appraisals, November 2007
  16. Calam R, Gregg L, Goodman R; Psychological adjustment and asthma in children and adolescents: the UK Nationwide Mental Health Survey. Psychosom Med. 2005 Jan-Feb;67(1):105-10.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Chloe Borton
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
356 (v5)
Last Checked:
11/11/2014
Next Review:
10/11/2019