Managing Your Child's Asthma—Plus What to Do in an Emergency

After the news that a Broadway actress died from an asthma attack at the age of 13, it’s time for a refresher on how to keep your child with asthma safe.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

With the tragic news that Broadway actress Laurel Griggs passed away after a massive asthma attack at the age of 13, asthma treatment is top of mind for many parents. How can you keep your child with asthma safe—and your fear in check?

Griggs, known for her roles in the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Once and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, was having trouble breathing Tuesday, Nov. 5, when emergency responders were called to the scene. They performed CPR, but Griggs, who had been diagnosed with asthma early in life, later died at the hospital, according to a New York Times report.

Asthma, a chronic lung condition that makes it hard to breathe, affects more than 6 million children, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). In fact, it’s the most common chronic condition diagnosed in kids.

That said, it may help ease your fears to put it into perspective: Asthma deaths in children are rare, says the ALA: 169 kids under 15 died from asthma in 2016, compared with 554 adults over 85. However, if not managed properly, asthma can be life-threatening—so if you have a kiddo with asthma, make sure you have a strong treatment and emergency care plan in place.

How to Manage Asthma in Children

Several factors may go into asthma management for kids, according to the Mayo Clinic, including:

  • Treating inflammation in the airways to prevent asthma attacks with daily medication

  • Treating asthma attacks with short-acting medications

  • Avoiding asthma triggers as much as possible

The overall goal? Control the asthma so that the number of asthma attacks that need to be treated is as small as possible. If your child is relying too much on rescue inhaler for quick symptom relief, that's a sign that their asthma is not well controlled, says the Mayo Clinic. In fact, relying too much on these rescue meds can up your kid’s risk of a more severe asthma attack.

Your child's doctor can help guide you when it comes to choosing the right long-term meds for your child's asthma management. They may include steroids (taken via an inhaler or in pill form), long-acting beta agonists or theophylline (types of drug that open the airways), and leukotriene modifiers (drugs that help prevent airway constriction, mucous production, and lung inflammation), per the Mayo Clinic.

If your child does experience an attack due to asthma triggers, short-acting drugs—sometimes called rescue medication—can help relieve those symptoms quickly. These may include albuterol and levalbuterol. Asthma drugs are usually given via an inhaler or a nebulizer so that they can get straight to the site of the inflammation: the lungs.

A 2019 study found that many kids with asthma may not be using their inhalers correctly, increasing their risk of hospitalization—so it’s crucial that you work with your child to ensure they’re using proper technique as well.

How to Avoid Asthma Attacks and Seek Care in an Emergency

So, you've got your child’s long-term and short-term drug medications in place—what else can you do to reduce the risk of asthma attacks? The Mayo Clinic recommends working to learn and minimize your child's asthma triggers. Common triggers include smoke and other irritants in the air, pet dander, dust, mold, cold weather, and more. Some simple ways to help your child avoid these triggers include:

  • Clean your home regularly—and thoroughly—to minimize dust and pet dander.

  • Monitor daily pollen count reports and minimize outdoor time on days when pollen is high.

  • Remove irritating cleaning or other household products from your home.

  • Urge anyone who your child spends time with to quit smoking.

  • Use allergy medications as directed.

Another great way to keep your child safe? Working together with your child’s doctor to create an action plan to share with their teachers, coaches, friends, family members, and other adults that supervise them regularly.

When putting together your action plan, make sure to include the following, says the Mayo Clinic:

  • Name and age of your child

  • Emergency contact information for you and your child’s doctor

  • The type, dose, and timing of long-term medications and rescue medications

  • 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

  • Step-by-step instructions for what to do if asthma symptoms strike, when to use rescue meds, and when to seek emergency care

Knowing when to seek emergency care is vital. Memorize these signs that it’s time to call 911 for your child during an asthma attack, according to Seattle Children's:

  • Your child suddenly starts to wheeze after a bee sting, taking medicine, or eating an allergic food.

  • Your child has severe trouble breathing and can barely speak or even cry.

  • Your child has passed out.

  • Your child's face or lips have turned bluish and they’re not coughing.

  • You think your child is experiencing a life-threatening emergency.

When in doubt, seek care right away. And make sure your kiddo knows the details of their care plan and signs and symptoms of an asthma emergency in themselves, too—that way, if they’re alone when symptoms strike, they will know when and how to use their rescue medication and seek the help of an adult without delay.

  • Asthma and Children Fact Sheet From the American Lung Association: Asthma and Children Fact Sheet. (2019). American Lung Association lung.org

  • Treating Asthma in Kids Ages 12 and Up, From the Mayo Clinic: Treating asthma in children ages 12 and older. (2016). Mayo Clinic. mayoclinic.org

  • Treating Asthma in Kids Ages 5-11, From the Mayo Clinic: Treating asthma in children ages 5 to 11. (2017). Mayo Clinic. mayoclinic.org

  • Emergency Care During an Asthma Attack From Seattle Children's: Asthma Attack. (2019). Seattle Children's. seattlechildrens.org

  • NY Times article about Laurel Griggs: "Laurel Griggs, Broadway Actress, Dies at 13 After Asthma Attack." 2019. New York Times. nytimes.com

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.