With autumn around the corner, asthma and allergies concern many families. The following is an overview of this condition, its causes, and basic treatment approaches. Your pediatrician will be your guide in best handling this situation.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease of the passageways that carry air to the lungs. These “airways” become narrow and the linings become swollen, irritated, and inflamed, causing labored breathing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath—constituting an “asthma attack.” Cough may be the first and sometimes the only symptom of early asthma. Other asthma symptoms are wheezing, fast breathing, or difficult breathing that uses extra muscles from the neck, abdomen, and chest to help “draw in” air. Symptoms of asthma can be different for each person, depending on how often they occur or how much or how fast the airways become narrowed
Prevention and early treatment of asthma may help reduce the number of days your child is absent from school or in the hospital. Controlling the symptoms of asthma will help your child feel healthy and make it possible for him to participate in sports and other physical activities with his friends.
What are the common asthma triggers?
Certain things “trigger” or worsen asthma. They are divided into “non-allergic” and “allergic” triggers. Your pediatrician will help you recognize what triggers your child’s asthma to reduce or eliminate asthma attacks.
- Infections in the airways
- Viral and bacterial infections of the ear, nose, and throat (fever is often present)
- Other infections (such as pneumonia)
- Cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke
- Other irritants in the air (air pollution, such as smog due to automobile exhaust, incinerator smoke, and even smoke from a fireplace)
- Cold air, dry air
- Sudden changes in the weather
- Emotional stress
Although allergies are not well understood, they tend to occur in families (i.e. genetic causes). The following allergens may initiate or worsen your child’s asthma.
- Dust (house dust mites)
- Chemicals used in industry
- Some foods and medicines (common ones: nuts, eggs, penicillin)
- Venom from insect stings
A pediatric allergist may help define which allergens are involved, and/or treat allergies with medications or “allergy shots.”
Some asthma medications are used on a daily basis, while others are used only during asthma attacks. There are two general groups: bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Bronchodilators, such as Albuterol, open up narrow passageways. They help relieve the feeling of tightness in the chest, wheezing, and breathlessness.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids (don’t worry … these types of steroids are safe!) help prevent the swelling and inflammation in the airways and may increase drainage of secretions from the airways. These drugs can be given by mouth, by injection, or can be inhaled in an aerosol (mist) form.
Be sure to ask your pediatrician for an “Asthma Action Plan” that includes advice geared to your child about the following:
- How to prevent or reduce asthma symptoms
- How to recognize asthma symptoms, especially symptoms of worsening asthma
- What treatment should be administered first and what to do if the asthma is getting worse
- What to do in an emergency
The Overall Game Plan.
Medications are one aspect of an overall treatment plan. As mentioned, there are other factors to consider such as reducing exposure to triggers. Work with your child’s pediatrician to create a treatment plan, the goals of which should be to:
- Eliminate (or reduce) triggers, including irritants and substances to which your child is allergic
- Gain control of the wheezing and return lung function to normal
- Develop a sensible “plan of response” for any asthma attack in order to reduce the need for emergency medical treatment and hospitalization
- Decrease frequency and severity of attacks
- Monitor the asthma with a peak flow meter to measure the amount of air your child is getting into her lungs. This helps you to recognize if the airway is narrowing. Peak flow rate measurements can usually be used for children five and older.
- Allow your child to grow and develop normally and take part in every and any normal childhood activities
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