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Asthma is the most common chronic medical condition seen in children in Australia. It affects one in five children.

The basics

In asthma, the small air passages (bronchi) in the lungs are narrowed because of a tightening of the muscle and an inflammation in the wall of the bronchial tubes. This reduces airflow in and out of the lungs, which causes wheezing, coughing and difficulty in breathing.

Predisposition and triggers

Affected children probably inherit a genetic predisposition to asthma. Early in their lives, something (an ‘inducer’) switches on the disease. If your child has such a predisposition, asthma can be brought on by infections, allergens or irritants.

If one or both parents or other family members have asthma, eczema, hay fever or allergies, there’s an increased chance your child will also have asthma.

Acute asthma attacks can be brought on by many triggers. Triggers vary from child to child.

The most common trigger is a viral infection, usually the common cold. Other triggers include viral infections, pollens, exercise, changes in the weather, cold air and exposure to cigarette smoke, dust or pets.

Children with asthma will react to asthma triggers by wheezing, coughing and becoming short of breath.

Passive smoking, or second-hand smoke, might be one of the irritants that leads to vulnerable children getting asthma. Exposure to certain allergens might do the same. Current research is trying to identify some of these factors, but at this stage we don’t know how we can prevent asthma from developing.


Most children don’t need any special tests. The diagnosis of asthma is usually made on the basis of your child’s medical history and a physical examination.

Children with more severe asthma, or who have frequent attacks, might need a chest X-ray or special breathing tests. These are often arranged by a paediatrician or respiratory specialist.

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  • Last Updated 07-07-2011
  • Last Reviewed 22-05-2011
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    Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service (2011). Asthma in childhood. Retrieved on 24 April 2011, from

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    Busse, W.W., Lemanske, R.F. Jr., & Gern, J.E. (2010). Role of viral respiratory infections in asthma and asthma exacerbations. Lancet, 376(9743), 826-34.

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