Skip to main content

Diagnosing childhood asthma in primary care

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Asthma article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Continue reading below

What is childhood asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways, associated with widespread, variable outflow obstruction. Clinically, this manifests as: 1

  • Wheeze.

  • Cough.

  • Difficulty breathing.

  • Chest tightness.

The outflow obstruction reverses either spontaneously or with medication. The underlying inflammation is associated with bronchial hyper-responsiveness (BHR) or airway hyper-reactivity to a variety of stimuli (eg, environmental allergens and irritants).

Diagnosis of asthma in children is difficult because of the complex nature of the disorder in the young. Accurate diagnosis in primary care remains an important challenge.

Many people consider 'wheeze' synonymous with asthma, yet there are many different causes of wheeze in childhood and increasingly we recognise different 'phenotypes' of wheezing. These are usually determined retrospectively, as they depend on the pattern of symptoms over time:

  • Episodes of wheezing, cough and difficulty breathing associated with viral upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) with no persisting symptoms - this is known as 'viral-induced wheeze'. Common in infants and preschool children (about 30% of children aged under 3 years). Most, however, will have stopped having recurrent symptoms by school entry.

  • Some children who wheezed early, will go on to develop wheezing with other triggers so that they develop interval symptoms, similar to older children with classical atopic asthma.2

  • Atopic asthma is more common in school-aged children; symptoms occur often with identifiable triggers and often alongside eczema or hay fever but, even in this age group, non-atopic asthma is as frequent as the atopic variant.

The diagnosis of asthma is clinically based without a single confirmatory diagnostic test, only corroboration of the diagnosis with changes in lung function or response to treatment. In the past, lung function testing was not possible before the age of about 5 years; however, several newer tests may enable testing somewhat earlier (eg, specific airways resistance, impulse oscillometry and measurements of residual volume), although none as yet has been fully evaluated.

How common is childhood asthma? (Epidemiology)3 4

Asthma affects more than 300 million people worldwide and 11.6% of children aged 6-7 years.

Asthma is the commonest long-term condition in children and is more common in children than adults. In the UK there are currently 1.1 million children receiving asthma treatment, which is 1 in 11 children. In childhood, asthma is more common in boys than girls.

The UK has one of the highest mortality rates in Europe for children and young people with asthma as the underlying cause. In 2017, there was a small reduction in the total number of deaths due to asthma.

Emergency admissions for asthma have fallen since 2003-4, but there is wide variation across the UK with the highest rates occurring in areas of deprivation. This is thought to be because these children have greater levels of exposure to tobacco smoke and environmental pollution. In England in 2017, children in the most deprived areas were 2.5 times more likely to be admitted to hospital with asthma than children in the least deprived areas.

Risk factors3 5

There is a long list of possible risk factors, which includes:

  • Personal history of atopy.

  • Family history of asthma or atopy.

  • Triggers (eg, allergens such as pollens, animal dander), dust, exercise, viruses, chemicals, weather changes, emotional factors, irritants and smoke.

  • Urban environment.

  • Socio-economic stresses.

  • Obesity.6

  • Prematurity and low birth weight.

  • Viral infections in early childhood.

  • Maternal smoking.

  • Passive as well as active smoking.

  • In vitro fertilisation.

  • Early exposure to broad-spectrum antibiotics. 7

Breast-feeding possibly confers protection.8

Risk factors for persistence of wheezing and asthma throughout childhood include:1

  • Age at presentation - those presenting aged younger than 2 years tend to have become asymptomatic by mid-childhood.

  • Co-existing atopy is a risk factor for persistence of asthma.

  • Family history of atopy, particularly maternal atopy.

  • Sex - male sex is a risk factor for asthma in prepubertal children whilst female sex is a risk factor for persistence of asthma into adulthood. Girls are less likely to 'grow out' of their asthma.

  • More severe and frequent wheezing episodes are associated with asthma persisting into adolescence.

  • Abnormal lung function, both baseline airway function and increased airways responsiveness.

A simple tool has been validated for predicting asthma at school age in preschool children with wheeze or cough. The tool consists of ten predictors yielding a total score between 0 and 15: sex, age, wheeze without colds, wheeze frequency, activity disturbance, shortness of breath, exercise-related and aeroallergen-related wheeze/cough, eczema and parental history of asthma/bronchitis.9

Continue reading below

Symptoms of childhood asthma (presentation)5

Clinical features that increase the probability of the diagnosis of asthma in children:1

  • More than one of the following symptoms - wheeze, cough, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, particularly if these symptoms:

    • Are frequent and recurrent.

    • Are worse at night and in the early morning.

    • Occur in response to, or are worse after, exercise or other triggers, such as exposure to pets, cold or damp air, or with emotions or laughter.

    • Occur apart from colds.

  • Personal history of atopic disorder.

  • Family history of atopic disorder.

  • Widespread wheeze heard on auscultation.

  • History of improvement in symptoms or lung function in response to adequate therapy.


When taking a history:

  • Ask about typical symptoms:

    • Wheeze - very common, high-pitched, polyphonic and present in expiration. As severity increases, it may be present during expiration and inspiration. In the most severe episode, it may be completely absent. It must be distinguished from the inspiratory, monophonic noise of stridor which is associated with reduced or impaired upper airway patency. Note that parental understanding of wheeze may include whistling, squeaking or gasping sounds, or a different style, rate or timbre of breathing. Clarify what a patient or their parent means by wheeze.

    • Cough may be the only symptom in children (particularly with exercise-induced asthma and nocturnal asthma). The cough is usually dry and nonparoxysmal. The nocturnal cough of asthma usually occurs after midnight. About 10% of preschool children have chronic cough without wheeze at some time. Chronic cough on its own is a poor marker for asthma and one should always consider other diagnoses. Children with cough-predominant asthma should show improvement on a short trial of asthma medication and return of symptoms on discontinuation of treatment.

    • Chest tightness with or without other symptoms occurs, particularly with exercise and at night in asthma.

    • Breathlessness varies according to severity. Establish whether the child is able to play, run or walk. The most severe attacks are accompanied by breathlessness at rest, paucity of speech, agitation, feeding difficulties and attenuated cry (in infants). Children become drowsy and confused and, in adolescents particularly, symptoms develop late as severity increases.

  • Identify triggers - eg, viral URTIs, cold air, dust, pets, pollen, change in weather, exercise.

  • Ask about symptoms in the intervals between exacerbations.

  • Establish what the pattern has been over time and the current frequency of acute episodes.

  • Ask about atopic illnesses in the patient and their family.

  • Check previous diagnoses, treatment and concordance with treatment.

  • Check for previous emergency contacts with healthcare professionals with related symptoms.

  • Note what impact there has been on the child's life and how much school has been missed.


Signs will vary according to the severity of asthma and the severity of any exacerbation. During episodes, check for:

  • Widespread wheeze.

  • Increased work of breathing.

  • Pulse rate.

  • Respiratory rate.

  • Oxygen saturation.

  • Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) - in children aged over 5 years.

  • Response to bronchodilator therapy.

Between episodes, there may be no clinical signs but check for:

  • Hyperexpansion and Harrison's sulci.

  • Clues to other possible diagnoses.

Differential diagnosis1 5

Clues to alternative diagnoses in the wheezy child

Wheeze present from birth:

  • Presents immediately, constant wheeze without variation: structural abnormality - eg, bronchogenic cyst, vascular ring.

  • Weak cry, stridor: laryngeal abnormality.

  • Signs of heart failure: congenital heart disease.

Wheeze present shortly after birth:

Sudden onset in a previously well child:

  • History of choking, unilateral reduced breath sounds: foreign body.

  • Persistent wet cough: cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, recurrent aspiration, immunodeficiency, ciliary dyskinesia.

  • FTT: cystic fibrosis, immunodeficiency, GORD.

  • Finger clubbing, purulent sputum: cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis.

  • Focal signs in the chest: developmental anomaly, post-infection, bronchiectasis, tuberculosis, foreign body.

Continue reading below

Investigations1 10 11

After the initial clinical assessment, it is usually possible to determine the relative likelihood of asthma in a particular child and the need for further investigations (although tests may only be needed if there is doubt about the diagnosis or significant disability from the disorder).

  • High probability of asthma - move directly to a trial of treatment, the choice of which will be based on assessment of current asthma severity. Reassess in 2-3 months. Investigate further those who show a poor response to treatment or who have severe disease.

  • Low probability of asthma - consider more detailed investigations and referral, particularly where an alternative diagnosis seems likely.

  • Intermediate probability of asthma - in some and especially those aged under 4-5 years, there may be insufficient evidence to make a firm diagnosis. Approaches in this instance include:

    • Watchful waiting with review.

    • Trial of treatment with review - where beneficial, treat as asthma.

    • Spirometry and reversibility testing.

Features increasing the probability of asthma

Features decreasing the probability of asthma

More than one of:



Difficulty breathing.

Chest tightness.

Particularly when:

Frequent and recurrent symptoms.

Worse at night and in the early morning.

Occurring in response to exercise or trigger.

Occurring separately from other cold-related symptoms.

Personal history of atopy.

Family history of atopy or asthma.

Widespread wheeze on auscultation.

History of symptom or lung function improvement after adequate therapy.

Symptoms only occurring in conjunction with colds; no interval symptoms.

Isolated cough without wheeze or breathing difficulties.

History of moist cough.

Prominent dizziness, light-headedness, peripheral tingling.

Normal respiratory examinations when symptomatic.

Normal lung function tests (including peak flow) when symptomatic.

No response to asthma treatment.

Clinical features suggestive of an alternative diagnosis.


With older children with an intermediate probability of asthma, diagnostic tests such as PEFR and forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) can provide objective measures of airways obstruction but these may be normal between episodes of bronchospasm and provide poor discrimination with other conditions that also cause airways obstruction. Spirometry is usually possible from about 5 years of age, although there is wide variation and it is dependent on the child's co-operation and comprehension of the task.

Where there is evidence of airways obstruction, looking for changes in PEFR or FEV1 10 minutes after the use of a bronchodilator (reversibility usually taken as >12% subsequent improvement in lung function). Also, look for response to a treatment trial over a defined time period, as this adds further weight to the diagnosis of asthma.

Where no evidence of airways obstruction is found with spirometry, consider referral and testing for:

  • Atopic status (skin tests*, blood eosinophilia or raised specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) to a cat, dog or mite).

  • Bronchodilator reversibility.

  • Bronchial hyper-responsiveness (with methacholine, exercise or mannitol - not available in the community) - high negative predictive value (86-100%) but less useful as a positive predictive tool (55%).

Fractional exhaled nitric oxide testing

This test can be considered in young people aged 5-16 years to confirm eosinophilic airways inflammation to support a diagnosis of asthma. It is used if there is uncertainty after initial testing - normal spirometry, or obstructive picture with negative bronchodilator reversibility testing.

A FeNO level above 35 ppb is considered a positive result, however, 1 in 5 with a positive result will NOT have asthma and 1 in 5 with a negative result WILL have asthma. Be aware that results can be affected by inhaled corticosteroids. Ideally patients should be steroid naive. Access to this test in the community varies regionally.

Tests that are not recommended

ERS recommends against the following in children aged 5-16 years:

  • PEFR variability testing as the primary objective test for diagnosis.

  • Diagnosing asthma based on clinical history alone.

  • Diagnosing asthma based on a single abnormal objective test.

  • Skin prick tests as diagnostic tests.

  • Diagnosing asthma based on improvement of symptoms after a trial of preventer medication alone.

CXRs should not be used as part of the initial work-up in primary care of children aged 0-6 years in the absence of a specific clinical indication.1

Indications for referral1

These include:

  • Diagnosis unclear or in doubt.

  • Symptoms present from birth or a perinatal lung problem.

  • Excessive vomiting/possetting.

  • Severe URTI eg bronchiolitis, croup, epiglottitis.

  • Persistent wet cough.

  • Family history of unusual chest disease.

  • Faltering growth (previously called failure to thrive - FTT.

  • Nasal polyps.

  • Unexpected clinical findings (eg, focal chest signs, abnormal cry or voice, dysphagia, stridor).

  • Failure to respond to conventional treatment (especially corticosteroids above 400 micrograms/day). Vocal cord dysfunction can mimic steroid-refractory asthma.

  • Frequent use of oral steroids.

  • Parental concerns or anxiety.

Further reading and references

  1. British guideline on the management of asthma; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), British Thoracic Society (BTS), NHS Scotland (2003 - revised July 2019)
  2. Heikkila P, Korppi M, Ruotsalainen M, et al; Viral wheezing in early childhood as a risk factor for asthma in young adulthood: A prospective long-term cohort study. Health Sci Rep. 2022 Mar 7;5(2):e538. doi: 10.1002/hsr2.538. eCollection 2022 Mar.
  3. Asthma; NICE CKS, April 2022 (UK access only)
  4. State of child health - Asthma; Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), March 2020
  5. Martin J, Townshend J, Brodlie M; Diagnosis and management of asthma in children. BMJ Paediatr Open. 2022 Apr;6(1):e001277. doi: 10.1136/bmjpo-2021-001277.
  6. Manuel SS, Luis GM; Nutrition, Obesity and Asthma Inception in Children. The Role of Lung Function. Nutrients. 2021 Oct 28;13(11):3837. doi: 10.3390/nu13113837.
  7. Gestels T, Vandenplas Y; Prenatal and Perinatal Antibiotic Exposure and Long-Term Outcome. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr. 2023 May;26(3):135-145. doi: 10.5223/pghn.2023.26.3.135. Epub 2023 May 11.
  8. Miliku K, Azad MB; Breastfeeding and the Developmental Origins of Asthma: Current Evidence, Possible Mechanisms, and Future Research Priorities. Nutrients. 2018 Jul 30;10(8). pii: nu10080995. doi: 10.3390/nu10080995.
  9. Pescatore AM, Dogaru CM, Duembgen L, et al; A simple asthma prediction tool for preschool children with wheeze or cough. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2014 Jan;133(1):111-8.e1-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2013.06.002. Epub 2013 Jul 24.
  10. Gaillard EA, Keuhni CE, Turner S, et al. European Respiratory Society clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis of asthma in children aged 5–16 years. Eur Respir J. 2021 Apr 19.
  11. Asthma: diagnosis, monitoring and chronic asthma management; NICE Guideline (November 2017 - last updated April 2021)

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

symptom checker

Feeling unwell?

Assess your symptoms online for free