Not to Be Sneezed At

Your child is wheezing and struggling to breathe. Is it an allergic reaction or an asthmatic attack?
By Anél Lewis

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An allergy is an abnormal immune reaction to an allergen, explains Prof Eugene Weinberg of the Allergy Diagnostic Unit at the University of Cape Town’s Lung Institute. If this reaction occurs in the nose or lungs, the body releases histamines and other chemicals, causing the mucous membranes to swell. This may lead to a runny nose and streaming, itchy eyes, and heavy bouts of sneezing. About one in five people in South Africa have an allergy of some kind, says Weinberg. There are various types of allergies, but it is the nasal allergy that is related to, and often confused with, asthma.
 
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that affects the airways, making it difficult for someone to breathe. The small airways narrow and there is an inflammation of the membranes. There may also be an overproduction of mucous. Signs of asthma include a tight chest and wheezing, a dry cough and difficulty breathing. About 80 percent of all childhood asthma is diagnosed before the age of five and Dr Adrian Morris, a Cape Town-based allergy expert, says that more than half of affected children will outgrow the condition by their teens.
 
Similar triggers
 
Spring can be an uncomfortable time for children who suffer from either condition, as both may be triggered by excessive pollen in the air. Other common causes include animal dander, mould, house dust mites, cockroaches and tobacco smoke. Both asthma and allergies tend to be inherited, and Weinberg says a child with a family history of hay fever, eczema or asthma is likely to develop an allergy. Asthma can also be triggered by a viral infection or environmental factors such as insecticides, a change in the weather, processed foods, extreme emotions and physical exertion. Children with asthma don’t have to avoid exercise, but they are advised to opt for activities requiring short bouts of energy. Swimming is often recommended.
 
Treatment
 
Asthma can’t be cured, but it can be controlled. Reliever medications offer immediate relief for the symptoms, and usually last four to six hours, while controller medications prevent the onset of an attack. Both can be administered in tablet form, with an inhaler, syringe or nebuliser. Make sure your school knows that your child has asthma and takes medication. Dr Mike Levin, writing for the National Asthma Education Programme (NEAP) based in Johannesburg, says asthmatics should also be aware of any possible allergies that could trigger an attack. A rare trigger in younger children could be certain foods, such as cow’s milk.
 
An allergy such as hay fever may be seasonal or more chronic. Hay fever can be treated with oral antihistamines or topical steroid nasal sprays. Weinberg says there is also a new treatment, using drops of the grass allergen, which can be placed under the tongue to desensitise a sufferer to the allergy.
 
Famous asthma sufferers
 
Rugby player Schalk Burger and Olympic gold medallist, swimmer Ryk Neethling.
 
Useful contacts
 
  • Allergy Society of South Africa – 021 447 9091 or visit allergysa.org
  • National Asthma Education Programme – 011 643 2755 or visit asthma.co.za

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