Asthma Basics

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Dealing With Triggers: Cockroaches

A variety of things in the environment can make asthma or allergy symptoms worse. These are called "triggers." Your doctor can help you figure out what your child's triggers are.

Cockroaches are a common asthma trigger for many kids.

How Do Cockroaches Trigger Asthma Symptoms?

Cockroaches have a protein in their shed body parts, saliva (spit), and droppings (poop) that can set off a person's asthma or allergy symptoms.

How Can I Help My Child Deal With Them?

Have your home professionally exterminated every few months. Between these treatments, use bait traps to catch roaches (not aerosol sprays, which can make some kids' symptoms worse).

  • Avoid saving boxes, paper bags, or newspapers in piles around your home.
  • Don't leave open food containers or dirty dishes lying around your kitchen.
  • Keep counters free of crumbs or spills.
  • Keep garbage containers closed.
  • Wash recyclables before putting them in the bin.
  • Seal any cracks in walls and floors.
  • Remove all food and water sources that can attract cockroaches.
  • Frequent cleaning of floors (vacuum, mopping, etc.) and countertops will reduce allergen exposure.

Reviewed by: Stephen F. Dinetz, MD

Date reviewed: November 2017

Dealing With Triggers: Pets

A variety of things in the environment can make asthma or allergy symptoms worse. These are called "triggers." Your doctor can help you figure out what your child's triggers are.

Being around animals can be an asthma trigger for many kids.

Why Are Pets an Asthma Trigger?

Pets have a protein in their saliva (spit), urine (pee), or dander (tiny flakes of dead skin) that can set off a person's asthma or allergy symptoms.

How Can I Help My Child Deal With It?

If you think being around a pet is making your child's symptoms worse, have your child tested for allergies.

If your child has an animal allergy, you'll have to decide whether to keep your pet or find it a new home. The best course is to remove the pet from your home, though this isn't usually the easiest or happiest solution. Your child, other kids in the family, and even adults may have a tough time with this decision.

In some cases, your doctor may say it's OK to keep a pet if your child takes medicine or gets allergy shots. If so, you'll still need to limit your child's exposure to the animal.

Here are some tips:

  • Keep pets out of your child's bedroom and playroom.
  • Encourage your child not to hug or kiss the animal.
  • Vacuum and dust regularly and avoid rugs and wall-to-wall carpeting, especially in your child's bedroom.
  • Have someone other than your child wash or brush your pet every week. Bathing your animal weekly may help reduce the amount of dander it spreads in the home.
  • If you have a cat, keep your child away from the litter box, and place the box away from air vents.
  • Encourage everyone in the family wash their hands after playing with your pet.
  • If you have a pet that lives in a cage, keep it in a room that your child doesn't spend time in regularly. Also, have someone other than your child clean the cage daily. Let teachers know about your child's allergies if there's a caged animal in the classroom.
  • Consider buying an air cleaner with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter for your child's bedroom or playroom. Central air filtration systems are also an option, but are much more expensive.

Sometimes, such measures may not be enough. Because animal allergens are airborne, heating and ventilation systems will spread allergens throughout the house, even if the pet is kept out of bedrooms.

What If We Can't Keep Our Pet?

If your child still has symptoms after taking medicines, including allergy shots, or needs a bunch of medicines to be around your pet, your only choice might be to find a new home for your pet.

If so, be sure to discuss this with your child. Reassure your child that this isn't his or her "fault" — and make sure siblings don't blame the child. Losing a pet, even to a friend's home, can be hard for everyone in the family.

After a pet is removed from the home, it can take several months before dander is totally gone.

When going to a house with a pet, your child should first take any prescribed allergy medicine and (as always) bring along quick-relief medicine (also called rescue or fast-acting medicine).


Reviewed by: Stephen F. Dinetz, MD

Date reviewed: November 2017

Asthma Flare-Ups

What Are Asthma Flare-Ups?

An asthma flare-up is when asthma symptoms get worse, making kids wheeze, cough, or be short of breath. An asthma flare-up can happen even when asthma is controlled.

Asthma flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations.

What Happens in an Asthma Flare-Up?

Asthma is a disease of the breathing tubes that deliver air in and out of the lungs. When someone has asthma, these airways (also called bronchial tubes and bronchioles) might be slightly inflamed or swollen, even when the person seems to be breathing fine.

During a flare-up: 

  • The inflammation gets worse. Sticky mucus clogs the airways and their walls get more swollen.
  • The muscles around the airways get tight, further narrowing them (this is called bronchoconstriction).

These problems leave very little room in the airways for air to flow through — think of a straw that's being pinched.

What Causes Asthma Flare-Ups?

People with asthma have airways that are overly sensitive to some things (called triggers). Being around triggers can bring on asthma symptoms. 

The most common trigger in kids are viral respiratory infections, such as colds. Other common triggers include:

  • tobacco smoke
  • cold air
  • exercise
  • animal dander
  • dust mites
  • mold
  • cockroaches

Many people with asthma also have allergies, which are another important flare-up trigger.

If not treated, a flare-up can last for several hours or even days. Quick-relief medicines (also called rescue medicines or fast-acting medicines) often stop the symptoms pretty quickly. A person should feel better once the flare-up ends, although this can take several days, especially if a viral infection was the trigger.

What Are the Signs of an Asthma Flare-Up?

Asthma flare-ups can vary in strength and length. They can happen without warning, causing sudden coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

Flare-ups should be treated right away. So it's important to know their early warning signs, including:

  • coughing
  • throat clearing
  • fast or irregular breathing
  • being very tired
  • trouble doing everyday activities
  • restless sleep or coughing that prevents sleep
  • mild chest tightness or wheezing

If the flare-up is severe, a kid might:

  • struggle to breathe or have fast breathing even when sitting still
  • be unable to speak more than a few words at a time without pausing
  • have retractions (sucking in of muscles in the neck and chest) while breathing in

Because they can be life-threatening, flare-ups demand attention. Your child might need to take quick-relief medicine (which acts quickly to relieve symptoms), visit the doctor, or even go to the hospital.

Following the instructions in your child's asthma action plan can help you know what to do when a flare-up happens.

How Can We Help Prevent Asthma Flare-Ups?

To help prevent asthma flare-ups:

  • Make sure your child always has quick-relief medicine and the spacer available.
  • Teach your child how to avoid asthma triggers.
  • Make sure your child takes the long-term control medicine (also called controller medicine or maintenance medicine) as the doctor directed. Even when your child feels well, it's important not to skip it.
  • Make sure your child gets a yearly flu vaccine, and washes his or her hands well and often to avoiding germs that lead to colds and other illnesses.
  • Work with the doctor on an effective asthma action plan.

Reviewed by: Aledie Amariah Navas Nazario, MD

Date reviewed: August 2018