'She wouldn't stop coughing': Why toddler's common illness took 10 weeks to diagnose

Photo: Sarah and her daughter, Havana. Supplied.
Photo: Sarah and her daughter, Havana. Supplied. 

Sarah Koessler knew something wasn't right when her one-year-old daughter, Havana, couldn't stop coughing. 

"One night she was asleep and wouldn't stop coughing," Sarah tells Essential Baby. "I couldn't work out what was happening. It went for about 30 minutes." 

At the time, the Sydney mum had no idea how serious it was or what was happening to Havana. 

She had taken her little girl to medical centres numerous times for help before, but was compelled to go back again. Something just wasn't right. 

"I went back to the GP, when Havana was about one-and-a-half, after an exhausting 10 weeks of coughing," she explains. "The doctor finally said it's either asthma or pneumonia!" 

"I was relieved we had a diagnosis but was also dumbfounded. I had no experience with asthma before her diagnosis and I was never really educated on what asthma even was." 

The doctor said it was likely to be asthma and provided Havana with some Ventolin. It gave her relief instantly, but it didn't stop the asthma attacks from coming on. 

For Sarah, seeing her little girl 'struggle to breathe' was a mother's worst nightmare. 

"It was scary, she spent a lot of time in our bed to make sure she was breathing ok - which often she wasn't,": Sarah admits. "I could always feel and hear a rattle in her chest.

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It just didn't feel right. I felt stressed about it all the time. And Havana had changed — along with other problems with constant ear infections, she was always off and unhappy." 

Photo: Supplied

Photo: Supplied

After the advice about asthma from the GP, Sarah took Havana to see a paediatrician. 

"He didn't say much other than prescribing her a preventer called Flixotide. It didn't change anything, we were still using so much Ventolin. Even after a follow up appointment. 

Still feeling frustrated and stressed Sarah went back to the doctor, wondering if she needed to see a specialist. Sarah was shocked when the GP said Havana's asthma "wasn't that bad". 

During the 2020 summer bushfires, things went downhill for Havana. 

"Early 2020 she had three asthma attacks in the space of three hours. I'd had enough." 

Sarah demanded to get a referral for a respiratory specialist as Havana was going through one Ventolin puffer every fortnight which obviously wasn't right. 

"The specialist was great, he put her on a new preventer which really helped," Sarah explains. 

For Sarah and Havana, their journey with asthma is only beginning and it's a daunting one that keeps changing. 

"Every year we find her asthma gets worse. She has had quite a few asthma attacks during the evenings lately." 

According to Asthma Australia, during winter, asthma can worsen with the onset of flu and viruses' as well as the cold dry air.

"I still feel so new to this so I'm just trying to learn what I can while her condition changes," Sarah says.

Sarah has some important advice for parents who may find themselves in a similar situation.

"If you don't feel like you're being listened too, go elsewhere. If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't."

Sarah now sticks to her local family medical practice for ongoing support with Havana's asthma. 

If you'd like to learn more about asthma, visit asthma.org.au or call 1800 ASTHMA

Always seek advice from a medical professional.