Treatments of wheezing

We thought our 3-year-old son had a cold. But when he started to wheeze, his doctor put him on a five-day course of an asthma drug called albuterol. Yet our son doesn’t have asthma. Is albuterol good for little kids? What would cause asthma-like conditions in children?

This is a common question. The medication albuterol, while used to treat children and adults who have asthma, is not specific to asthma. It can treat wheezing from a variety of causes, such as viruses. Viruses can cause bronchospasm, or a tightening of the lung’s airways, which translates into the wheezing that the physician hears with the stethoscope. Albuterol helps to relax the airways.

Doctors are often willing to try a short course of albuterol with children from families who have “atopic” conditions: asthma, reactive airways, allergies, sinus trouble, hay fever, eczema or atopic dermatitis. Either the oral or nebulized form of albuterol may ease symptoms of these conditions. Barring the possibility of side effects from the medicine, albuterol may also hasten an end to the wheezing.

The theory is that even though your son has never been diagnosed with asthma, his airways may behave more like the “reactive” ones of a family member who does have allergies or asthma. Such a child may never wheeze again, but if he does, albuterol may help.

Incidentally, what parents most often describe as coughing is what a doctor hears as wheezing. A cough is a manifestation of the tightening and inflammation taking place in the lung’s breathing passages (airways). Coughing can often accompany a cold, which usually lasts seven to 10 days and maybe as long as 14 days. But a cough that lasts longer than 10 days may indicate that a child has asthma.

However, any child with wheezing, whether he’s treated with albuterol or not, should be seen by a physician 10 to 14 days later to be sure that the wheezing has gone away.

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