Asthma » Diagnosis and Preventive Management in Children

Originally Approved: March 2014
Last Updated: March 2014
Topic Owner: Cathy Pew MD (

Guidelines Reviewed:

  1. NHLBI 2007 Expert Panel Report (EPR) 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma
  2. Asthma Diagnosis and Treatment Guideline, Group Health Cooperative, copyright 1999-2012
  3. Key Points for Asthma Guideline Implementation, Medical Home Chapter Champions Program on Asthma, National Center for Medical Home Implementation, American Academy of Pediatrics, Spring 2013

Objective: To correctly identify children with asthma early, and begin management that allows full activity and prevents severe exacerbations.

Specific objectives:

  1. To use consistent criteria for diagnosing children with asthma
  2. To manage asthma symptoms with the most effective and least harmful treatments by using an evidence-based pathway
  3. To include spirometry data with and without a bronchodilator in the diagnostic evaluation and periodic reassessments in children who can perform the test.

Brief Summary of Recommendations:

  1. Determine which children who have had an acute wheezing event meet criteria for persistent asthma.
  2. Classify asthma severity. Severity combines impairment, which includes symptom history, physical exam and lung function testing by spirometry (in those children able to perform the test), and risk, or likelihood of more exacerbations based on previous exacerbations.
  3. Start appropriate asthma management using evidence-based therapies and preventive measures. The asthma severity at presentation should guide the initial choice of therapy.

Components of Management:

  1. Measurement (history and exam, objective tests)
  2. Education
  3. Identification and reduction of exposure to environmental triggers
  4. Identification and management of comorbid conditions (obesity, GERD, sleep apnea)
  5. Pharmacological control
  6. Written Asthma Action Plan
  7. Periodic monitoring

Inclusion criteria:

  • Cough, wheeze or difficulty breathing

Exclusion criteria:

  • Other disorders that could cause or complicate wheezing, such as infection, other lung disease, airway anomaly, heart failure, foreign body aspiration

First, assess symptom severity

  • If child is in respiratory distress, move to the Asthma Acute Care Pathway.
  • Return to this diagnostic and preventive management pathway when the child is returning for follow up.

Children age 4 or less:

  1. Diagnose asthma
    1. Episodic airflow obstruction that can be reversed with bronchodilators and/or steroids and is not caused by other disorders.
      1. Symptoms of episodic airflow obstruction include cough, wheeze or shortness of breath that is worse at night or with exercise, or when exposed to viral infections or common allergens like animals, dust mites, or pollen, or cold air.
      2. Failure to thrive or continuous wheezing or asymmetrical lung sounds suggest the need to look for another diagnosis and consider referral.
    2. Risk of another exacerbation
      1. ≥2 episodes in the past 12 months requiring oral steroids, OR
      2. ≥4 episodes of cough or wheeze in the past year
  2. Classify severity (intermittent vs. persistent asthma) using both ongoing impairment and the risk of future exacerbations (Table 1, from EPR 2007, p. 72)
    1. Intermittent - children who have above symptoms but who do not meet criteria for persistent asthma
    2. Persistent - use Table 1 to further classify as mild, moderate or severe
      1. Ongoing impairment
        1. Symptoms or need for SABA .2 days a week for the past 4 weeks
        2. Night awakenings .2 nights a month, or
        3. Any limitation of their normal activity due to cough, wheeze or shortness of breath, OR
      2. Likelihood of future exacerbations based on the asthma predictive index:
        Major risk factors (need 1)Minor risk factors (need 2)
        Parental history of asthmaSensitization to foods
        Atopic dermatitis diagnosed by a physician> 4% eosinophils on CBC
        Sensitization to aeroallergensWheezing without evidence of URI
  3. Treatment (Table 2, from EPR-2007, p. 305)
    1. Intermittent asthma
      1. SABA 2-4 puffs every four hours when needed
    2. Persistent asthma
      1. low-dose inhaled corticosteroids
      2. SABA as needed
    3. Moderate to severe persistent asthma
      1. medium-dose inhaled corticosteroids or low-dose inhaled corticosteroids plus another agent; either a long-acting bronchodilator or a leukotriene receptor antagonist (LTRA, such as montelukast)
      2. SABA as needed
      3. Refer for allergy and pulmonary specialty consultations.
    4. At all levels
      1. Educate the family about signs, symptoms and management
      2. Look for possible triggers and comorbidities
      3. Develop an asthma action plan and give the family a written copy
      4. Develop a tracking system for education topics, reminder calls for follow up, and for emergency room visits
  4. Follow up
    1. One to four times a year, depending on level of control
    2. Assess level of control (Table 3, from EPR-2007, p.75)
    3. Adjust therapy
    4. Continue other components of management and tracking

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

Children 5 and up

  1. Diagnose asthma
    1. Evidence of airflow obstruction such as cough, wheeze or shortness of breath as above, especially if worse at night or with exertion
    2. Improvement with short-acting bronchodilator (SABA), e.g. albuterol
    3. Evidence of reversible airway obstruction on spirometry (when able to perform)
      1. If any obstruction on spirometry, retest after 2 puffs of short-acting bronchodilator (SABA). An improvement in FEV1 of > 12% is considered to be a reversible obstruction.
      2. Refer children for pulmonology consultation who have a restrictive pattern on spirometry or an obstructive pattern that does not respond to bronchodilators.
    4. Exclude other causes of chronic or recurrent cough, wheeze or respiratory distress with history and physical exam.
  2. Classify severity using Tables 4 and 5, from EPR-2007
    1. Intermittent:
      1. Symptoms and inhaler use less than the criteria for persistent asthma
      2. Normal or mild obstruction on spirometry
      3. 0-1 exacerbations/year that require oral steroids
    2. Persistent:
      1. Symptoms or inhaler use more than twice a week
      2. Night awakening more than twice a month
      3. Impaired activity level
      4. Abnormal lung function on spirometry
      5. 2 or more exacerbations/year requiring oral steroids
      6. Further classify into mild, moderate or severe using EPR-2007 tables.
      7. Assign the patient to a level based on whichever symptom or lung function is the most severely impaired.
    3. Initial treatment: use tables from Asthma Initial Management diagram
      1. Intermittent : Step 1
        1. Short-acting bronchodilator (SABA) given as needed
        2. Some children with intermittent asthma may have infrequent but severe exacerbations requiring oral steroids or ER or hospital admission. These children should have written asthma action plans and possibly oral steroid medication at home like children with more persistent asthma.
      2. Mild Persistent: Step 2
        1. low-dose inhaled corticosteroids
        2. SABA as needed
      3. Moderate to Severe Persistent: start with Step 2 or Step 3
        1. medium-dose inhaled corticosteroids
        2. Other options: lower dose of steroids plus long-acting bronchodilator or leukotriene modifier
        3. SABA as needed
        4. Refer to a pulmonologist or asthma specialist requiring Step 4 on the table or higher to achieve control. Consider referral for Step 3.
      4. At all levels
        1. Determine triggers, minimize exposure
        2. Identify comorbid conditions
        3. Provide education, including a written Asthma Management Plan
        4. Track education, referrals, emergency visits and follow up
      5. Follow up: see tables on diagram
        1. Assess level of control by symptoms and lung function on spirometry, and family.s understanding of and compliance with recommended treatment.
        2. Use validated questionnaires to assess symptoms whenever possible.
        3. Adjust treatment Step as needed to achieve good control and minimize side effects.
        4. Frequency of follow-up
          1. Well controlled: 1-4 times per year, depending on initial severity and treatment Step.
          2. Not well controlled: 2-6 weeks after moving to the next Step, until good control is achieved.
          3. Very poorly controlled: 2 weeks after a course of oral steroids and moving up 1-2 Steps, until good control is achieved. Inhaled corticosteroids may take up to 6 weeks for full efficacy, so dose increases should allow time to assess the response.

    Table 4

    Table 5