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There are ways for parents to stay on top of asthma, making it possible for children to lead normal lives.

Asthma is a chronic disorder of the lungs in which the airways narrow and mucous is secreted due to inflammation. This results in interference to the body’s normal air movement. It affects 300 million people worldwide and, because it can be life threatening, is a scary condition to live with. Although there is no cure for asthma at present, effective treatment is available to control it.

Triggers and symptoms

When trying to understand what makes a child susceptible to asthma, consider the child’s history with allergies or atopic eczema. Also consider  the family’s history of asthma, especially on the mom’s side. According to a paediatrician from the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, asthma has a strong link to allergies, such as hay fever, which coexists in 80 percent of asthmatic patients.  The trigger may vary based on the individual child’s allergy. This could be particular foods, dust, medicines, pet hair or air pollution. The common cold, exercise, irritants such as tobacco smoke (the number one no-no), cold air, emotional stress and even laughing, as well as allergens can all trigger symptoms.

For more about diagnosing and treating allergies in children, read here

Wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing are all symptoms of asthma. Dr Ishmael Mohlabi, a Johannesburg-based paediatrician, points out that asthma is “a respiratory condition and its signs and symptoms may overlap with those of other chest ailments”. It’s difficult to distinguish from wheezy bronchitis, which often occurs in the first three years of life, says the Red Cross Children’s Hospital paediatrician. After the age of three, recurring dry wheezing, especially in the middle of the night or early in the morning, is most likely due to asthma.

Take the Three-Part Approach

Avoid the triggers. This means treating the associated conditions such as hay fever, which may mean having to remove plants from your home or garden, not having pets and not smoking in the house (or at all).

Understand the disease. Learn and practise the correct and regular use of treatment especially with regards to asthma pump techniques. A pump with a spacer slows down the speed of the spray coming from the inhaler so that less bronchodilator hits the back of the mouth and more gets into the lungs.

Medicate with relievers and controllers. Relievers are asthma pumps that contain bronchodilator medication and should strictly only be used when symptoms occur. Controller medicine (corticosteroid) prevents asthma symptoms by treating the underlying inflammation in the airway. The main goal of the treatment is control. “However, if your child is using their reliever pump more than three times weekly it is uncontrolled asthma,” says Mohlabi.

Failure to control asthma will lead to excessive use of the reliever pumps and this is an indication that “medication and dosages may need adjusting,” he adds.

Be Prepared

The Red Cross Hospital advises parents to follow this step-by-step plan when dealing with asthma attacks. Make sure you stay calm and patient, and give your child a bronchodilator via pump or nebuliser as soon as possible. Four puffs of a pump should be given three times at 20-minute intervals. Depending on the severity of the attack you should also give your child corticosteroids, advises the hospital’s paediatrician. If your child’s breathing doesn’t improve; take them to the nearest emergency centre.

Though many children’s symptoms decrease as they reach adolescence, Mohlabi says the possibility of relapse later in life remains. To stave off possible setbacks, the asthmatic should then always consider the impact their surroundings (and the triggers it contains) have on their condition.

Lucille Kemp