Childhood onset

Asthma is a condition which can start in childhood or in adulthood. Although we only talked to adults about their asthma, some told us that asthma had been part of their lives since childhood, to varying degrees and with varying impact. Here we look specifically at these experiences of childhood onset asthma.

Improved treatment and greater awareness about asthma means that schools are now more used to supporting children with asthma. We found noticeable differences in experience between those who were diagnosed decades ago and those more recently.
Some people said that because they had had asthma for as long as they could remember it had become something they hardly thought about, although that could depend on the severity and frequency of symptoms. Catherine who was diagnosed as a child felt it might be easier to come to terms with asthma as a young person rather than dealing with diagnosis as an adult.

Asthma symptoms may vary over time; some people may find it gets worse as they grow older, whereas others may improve or ‘grow out of it’ and only rarely need to use a reliever inhaler when symptoms appear.
Although asthma is now better understood, some said that as children they tended to use their inhalers in private rather than in front of people to avoid awkward questions or being seen as weak. Asthma can set young people apart from others their age – for example Asthma UK report - Missing Out 2009 said that 73% of children surveyed said that they had problems joining in PE lessons. Being unable to go to friends’ homes if they had pets was another common experience, and several people said other children can be cruel or thoughtless. Others too said their own set of friends had helped and supported them and understood their limitations. Developing alternative interests and hobbies, such as reading or chess, was a common strategy.

These days there may be several other children in school who also have asthma so it isn’t seen as particularly unusual. Current school guidelines are that every child should have their own labelled inhaler, and it is not generally permitted for a child to use another child’s inhaler of the same type, even in an emergency situation. It is important therefore for parents to make sure the school has an inhaler and that it is still within its use-by date. Asthma UK is campaigning for a change in these guidelines so that schools can keep a spare inhaler for any child with asthma to use in an emergency.
How far parents need to be involved in helping their children manage symptoms and take medication will vary according to the child’s age and how often or how badly they get symptoms. A key part of growing up with asthma is learning to control your own condition, which in turn means parents gradually handing over responsibility.

Some of the younger people we spoke to said that when they were children their parents would oversee their treatment and make sure they were using their medication regularly, but that when they became teenagers they had sometimes got into bad habits such as forgetting to use the preventer inhaler regularly and it could be more difficult to avoid triggers like smoke when they wanted to be able to go out and socialise with friends.
We talked to some people who were able to compare their own experience of childhood onset asthma and that of their children. Mark feels very protective of his children and worries about them, but also feels that having asthma himself gives him important insights to help manage things for them. He commented, ‘Years ago they didn’t have the facilities of things like tests and assessments…In those days people knew very little about the problem.’ Esther developed asthma in her 20s, but her daughter was diagnosed as a baby and has been very unwell at times in her life. (See ‘Relationships', 'family and friends’ and ‘Support’).
Memories from the 50’s and 60’s

Quite a few people who we talked to had been diagnosed with asthma during their childhood some years ago, and for some this brought back difficult memories. Asthma had made some of them feel different or even isolated from their peer group. Some remember having lots of time away from school and being unable to keep up with schoolwork. Medication was not as sophisticated as it is nowadays, and people remembered having to use cumbersome equipment, taking tablets, visits from the doctor at home, and having regular injections. Jane Y remembers when oral steroids first became available in the 1950s and says, ‘My mother and father thought, “Oh, this is a miracle drug”, because I had one tablet and I was just bouncing around.’ However, although Jane said it had been difficult having asthma when she was young, she also remembers her friends helping her carry her bags to and from school and walking slowly to be with her.
Belinda described being sent away in the 1960’s to a special school for children with respiratory conditions; while it was good to be with other children who understood, it also heightened a sense of isolation and difference.
In mainstream schools too there had often been little sympathy or understanding from teachers about asthma and some children were made to feel as though they were making it up, making a fuss, or exaggerating their condition because they didn’t like sports.
Some people who had severe asthma as children felt that their parents tended to be over protective and would not allow them to participate in normal everyday activities which left them feeling isolated from other children. But others remember the support they received from friends and family had helped them to continue to live as normal a life as possible. Looking back a few people we talked to felt they probably had asthma symptoms as children but were not diagnosed till later in life.
While the experience of asthma has changed since many of the people we talked to were children, these early experiences can affect how they feel about living with asthma and managing their condition.

(Also see ‘Adult onset’, ‘Early signs and symptoms’, ‘Asthma attack and emergencies’ and ‘Support and support groups’).


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