As a life-long asthma sufferer, married to an asthma sufferer with an asthmatic child, I am all too well aware of the challenges faced in living with what is now the most common long-term medical condition in children. One in ten children has asthma, and according to Asthma UK, the charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of the five million people in the UK whose lives are affected by asthma, every 18 minutes a child is admitted to hospital in England, Scotland or Wales because of their asthma.
Asthma is a condition that affects the airways – the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. People with asthma have airways that are almost always sensitive and inflamed.
When someone with asthma comes into contact with an asthma trigger, the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten, narrowing the airway and making it harder to breathe. The lining of the airway becomes inflamed and starts to swell. Often sticky mucus or phlegm is produced. All these reactions cause the airways to become narrower and irritated – leading to the symptoms of asthma.
In mild asthma the child’s most obvious symptom may be a cough, perhaps when they have a cold, in the middle of the night or after exercising. If more severe, the child could seem to be gasping for breath, as their lungs fill up with air which they are unable to expel. They could appear distressed, frustrated even angry. (Please don’t try to comfort a child experiencing an asthma attack by putting your arm around them; you will simply make them feel even more constricted.)
If you suspect a child may have asthma you should take them to the doctor for correct diagnosis as soon as possible.
When I was young, I was not prescribed any drugs for my asthma until I was about 9 or 10. An asthma attack meant that both myself and my parents would sit up for several hours at night until the attack passed – drinking coffee, as the caffeine gives a small amount of relief to the symptoms.
Nowadays, once asthma has been diagnosed even a baby under one year can be given a syrup containing salbutamol which can relieve the symptoms. Once a child is 4 or 5 they will be able to use an inhaler with a spacer device to either relieve or prevent an asthma attack.
Most schools are sympathetic to these things, and your doctor will often give your child a spare set of inhaler and spacer device which you can leave at school. Normally you will have to sign a permission form for the school to administer any drugs.
Asthma is an atopic condition like eczema, allergic rhinitis and hayfever. It tends to run in families and it is relatively common for an asthmatic to suffer from eczema as well. House dust mite allergy is one of the commonest asthma triggers, and the suggestions given for minimising the amount of dust in your house can help reduce the number of attacks suffered.
Reduce dust by regularly vacuuming, damp dusting and reducing the amount of soft furnishings and carpets in your house. Pet hairs and animal dander can also trigger attacks in many people, and so if you can’t bear to get rid of Rover or Tiddles, consider getting a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
About the author: Jacqui O'Brien is the Editor of eParenting.