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High doses of steroids from an inhaler to prevent wheezing in babies and young children

BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for parents of a baby or young child with wheezing. It tells you about high doses of steroids from an inhaler, a treatment used to prevent wheezing in babies and young children. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Do they work?

Yes. There's good research to show that steroids from an inhaler can help prevent asthma symptoms in babies and young children. But doctors are careful about giving this treatment, because they don't know enough about the side effects of steroids in young children.

What are they?

The medicine

Steroids calm down and prevent swelling ( inflammation) in the airways of children with asthma. Your child can breathe them in through devices called inhalers, spacers, and nebulisers.

Inhaled steroids are usually used to prevent wheezing and asthma attacks. Your doctor may refer to these drugs as preventers.

It is important to remember that the steroids used to treat asthma are not the same as the anabolic steroids used by some athletes and bodybuilders. In fact, they are similar to the steroids produced naturally by our bodies to deal with inflammation. The full name for the steroids used to treat asthma is corticosteroids. To learn more, see More about steroids and asthma.

There are several inhaled steroids used to treat asthma. They include (with brand names):

The inhaler

There are lots of different types and brands of inhalers that your child can use to breathe in this medicine. The most common type is a metered-dose inhaler (MDI). This is a small plastic device with a slot for an aerosol canister that has the steroid drug inside. Pressing the inhaler releases the exact dose of the medicine as a cloud of tiny droplets that your child slowly breathes in through his or her mouth.

Younger children and babies cannot use an MDI on its own because it takes quite a lot of coordination to be able to breathe in and release the dose at the same time. Two other devices can help younger children take inhaled medicine: a spacer device, which is often used with a face mask, and a nebuliser. To read more, see How to take asthma drugs.

When are they given?

Your doctor may prescribe steroids from an inhaler if your child has been using a quick-relief inhaler regularly but is still getting symptoms.

How can they help?

Breathing in high doses of steroids may help your child in the following ways: [34] [35] [36] [37]

  • Your child may be less wheezy

  • Your child may sleep better

  • Your child may need to take other asthma treatments less often.

Young children sometimes have problems breathing in their medicine. If this happens, your doctor may suggest a higher dose of steroids to make sure your child gets enough of their treatment. [11] But as a rule, doctors prescribe the lowest dose of steroids that works. This is to reduce the chance of getting side effects.

Last Updated: July 03, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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