Understanding Your Child’s Lung Health

From COVID-19 and colds to allergies and asthma, many conditions can affect your child’s lung health. When you notice symptoms like coughing or wheezing, it can be difficult to know whether your child has a passing virus or another condition. How can you tell the difference, and when do you need to seek medical care for your child?  

Be Aware of Virus Symptoms  

“A lot of viruses have similar symptoms, making it hard to tell the difference between a cold, the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19,” says Jennie Ono, M.D., M.S., associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and chief of pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. “A lot of parents have questions about what to do when their child has cold symptoms. Should they keep their child home from school or take them to the doctor?”  

While symptoms of common respiratory viruses overlap, some symptoms are more likely to occur than others with specific illnesses. Knowing what to watch for can help you decide whether your child needs to see a doctor.  

Flu, RSV and COVID-19 can all cause similar symptoms, such as 

  • Cough 
  • Fever 
  • Shortness of breath 

While this can make it difficult to know what your child has, sometimes, other symptoms are often present that can help you or your healthcare provider make a determination. For example, if your child is wheezing, it is much more likely he or she has RSV, as wheezing doesn’t typically occur with flu or COVID-19. If your child is achy, fatigued or has a sore throat, flu or COVID-19 are more likely culprits. A loss of taste or smell can be a telltale sign of COVID-19, as this doesn’t usually happen with other viruses.  

“Sometimes, it’s not possible to distinguish between viruses without a doctor’s test,” Dr. Ono says. “If you’re concerned, we recommend reaching out to your pediatrician.” 

The CDC recommends all children 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine as well as a COVID-19 vaccine. An RSV vaccine is now available for very young children. 

Asthma and Allergies 

Asthma in children can trigger some of the same symptoms as certain viruses, and these symptoms can worsen if your child catches a virus.  

Signs of asthma include:  

  • Chest tightness 
  • Constant coughing, or coughing that is made worse by a virus, exercise or cold air 
  • Fatigue 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Trouble sleeping due to coughing or difficulty breathing  
  • Wheezing 

Allergies to dust mites, dog or cat dander, pollen and other irritants can also cause flare-ups of asthma symptoms.  

“About 80% of children with asthma have allergy triggers compared to 50% of adults,” says Perdita Permaul, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, interim section chief of pediatric allergy/immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine and an assistant attending pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Komansky Children's Hospital. “If the child inhales something they are allergic to, they may experience asthma symptoms.” 

If your child shows signs of asthma, call your pediatrician. Allergy testing may also be done to determine if your child has specific allergies that are causing asthma symptoms to worsen. If your child is diagnosed with allergies, there are changes you can make at home, in addition to medication, that can help your child breathe easier. Keeping windows closed and running air conditioning, wearing a mask outdoors when pollen counts are high and washing bedding frequently in hot water and using air purifiers can help. 

Find a doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine to help keep your child’s lungs healthy.