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Life is Still a Breath of Fresh Air, Even with Asthma
By Dr. Sally Robinson and Dr. Keith Bly

More than 4.1 million children in this country suffer from asthma, and studies show that the number is on the rise. Asthma is, in fact, one of the most common childhood diseases. It is also a leading cause of school absence, accounting for more than 10 million lost days each year.

Studies also show that the severity of asthma has increase over the last 30 years. More and more youngsters with asthma are needing intensified treatments and/or hospitalization.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that obstructs airways and makes them overly sensitive to irritants. During an attack, the smooth muscles around the airways (bronchial tubes) tighten, causing them to narrow inside, become inflamed and produce excess mucus. The clogged passages make it difficult to get air in and out. "It's like trying to catch your breath with an elephant sitting on your chest," says Dr. Ed Brooks, asthma specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children's Hospital. In mild cases, asthma is uncomfortable. In severe forms, it leaves kids gasping for each breath.

For 90 percent of children, the disease is allergic in nature. (The causes for nonallergic asthma are not yet established.) Common allergic triggers are pets, pollens, dust mites, mold and feathers. Attacks may occur after exposure to irritants (cigarette smoke, strong odors, household cleaning products, workplace chemicals), viral respiratory infections (colds, flu), sudden changes in weather or emotional stress.

Asthma attacks vary widely in intensity and duration. Symptoms often erupt within 10 to 15 minutes after exposure to a trigger and can last for hours. More than half of the kids who have short-duration attacks also suffer delayed reactions (chest tightness, wheezing and other symptoms) four to eight hours later that can last for days, according to Brooks.

The earlier asthma is diagnosed, the sooner your child's doctor can help get the condition under control. All too often, asthma goes undiagnosed, particularly among young children whose primary symptom is a chronic cough. Early warning signs include: wheezing, fatigue, coughing (even when the child doesn't have a cold), difficulty breathing and a tight feeling in the chest. If your youngster experiences some or all of these symptoms on a regular basis, consult his or her doctor or an asthma specialist as soon as possible.

Once it's confirmed that your child has asthma, the doctor will come up with a treatment plan that will fit your child's needs. This plan, which may include monitoring the child's breathing and giving anti-inflammatory drugs, should be shared with all adults responsible for the child's well-being, including grandparents, caregivers and teachers.

Will your child outgrow asthma? Doctors can't say for sure. Sometimes the condition goes into reemission. "Some children with asthma seem to get better, but you can never count on the condition going away completely," said Brooks.

Dr. Sally Robinson is Professor of Pediatrics, and Dr. Keith Bly is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston Children's Hospital. For more information, visit: www.utmb.edu


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