Why Your Kid’s Asthma May Be Worse At Night (And What To Do If It Is)

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 
A little boy with asthma playing games next to his father while sitting on a couch

At just 6 months old, our son was diagnosed with bronchiolitis, a virus that causes inflammation and congestion in the lungs. Given his age at the time, his pediatrician prescribed two medications which were to be administered through a nebulizer, a machine to push air (and the medication) into his little body.

Like clockwork, we’d put the mask over his mouth and nose just after he’d fallen asleep for the night; the hum of the machine was almost soothing for him, while with the mask he put up a fight. His cough and inability to breathe worsened at night. Today, he is diagnosed with asthma.

Of the children in the US under the age of 18, 6.1 million — like my son — have asthma, a chronic condition. In a study conducted by the American Lung Association, over 3.5 million children suffered from an asthma attack in 2016.

What causes asthma in children? For some it’s hereditary; for others it’s their environment, like pollution; and for some, it’s due to allergens, like dust mites.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Unfortunately, childhood asthma can’t be cured, and symptoms can continue into adulthood. But with the right treatment, you and your child can keep symptoms under control and prevent damage to growing lungs.”

Some children can grow out of it, meaning that the symptoms lessen or disappear as they get older. But for other kids, their asthma can get worse over time, and for some, especially at night.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology found that melatonin, a natural hormone in the body released at night from the pineal gland, weakens the effects of inhalers which are used to help asthmatics breathe easier. The study went on to find that higher doses of melatonin constricted the bronchi, or the tubes which carry air to your lungs.

One article by Kids First Pediatrics states, “The chances of having asthma symptoms is higher during sleep. Nocturnal asthma symptoms of a tight chest, shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing accompanied by sleep disturbance are commonplace but serious.”

Staying up at night does not bode well for your little one’s behaviors during the day. But what can you do if your child is suffering from nighttime asthma attacks when they’re supposed to be sleeping?

Check their bedding.

Certain things commonly found in bedding — like dust mites, pet dander, or the feathers from a down comforter — can trigger nighttime asthma attacks. Bedding should be kept as clean as possible, and in addition, you can use dust-proof covers for pillows and mattresses that help keep irritating allergens at bay.

Put them upright.

Sometimes lying in a flat position can aggravate asthma at night, especially if sinus problems, acid reflux, or a cold is a trigger. You can use a special wedge pillow to change to a more upright position, or just two regular pillows stacked on top of one another.

Make sure the air is optimal.

Cold, dry air can irritate the airways; check any windows for drafts and use a humidifier, especially in the drier winter months.

Keep the room clean.

It’s definitely easier said than done with kids around, but keeping their bedroom as dust-free as possible can help eliminate nighttime asthma triggers.

Keep the pets out.

Pet hair and dander can also be a contributing factor. It’s tough when your kiddo likes to snuggle the family dog or cat at night, but it’s best to keep the pets in another room.

Prevention is key, but it won’t always stop every nighttime asthma attack. In the event of a nighttime attack, there are medications that can help, like steroids or a fast-acting medication through a nebulizer. But no matter what kind of medications are around, and how quickly they act, it is scary to have a child who cannot breathe — especially at night.

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