Asthma is one of the most common chronic illnesses, affecting over 300 million people worldwide, many of whom are children.
Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa, Head of Operations at Bonitas Medical Fund, talks about the causes of asthma in children, preventative steps to reduce the chances of an attack, and treatment.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a long-term condition affecting children and adults. The air passages in the lungs become narrow due to inflammation, production of extra mucus, and tightening of the muscles around the small airways. This causes asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. These symptoms can be intermittent, are often worse at night, and can be triggered by exercise.
It affects approximately one in 10 children and one in 20 adults and can occur for the first time at any age, even in adulthood, although asthma usually begins before the age of five.
Signs and symptoms
Asthma is often under-diagnosed and under-treated in children and this can lead to disturbed sleep, tiredness during the day, and poor concentration. If you fail to recognise and avoid triggers that lead to your child’s tightened airways, they may have an asthma attack, feel respiratory distress, or experience a life-threatening situation. It’s important to ensure that your child avoids the triggers and that parents recognise the signs of this condition to enjoy a better quality of life.
What causes asthma?
There are various types of asthma including allergy-induced asthma. Research shows that the risk factors include a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental exposure, to inhaled substances and particles that may cause allergic reactions or irritate the airways. These include indoor allergens – such as dust mites, particles of cockroach waste, and pet dander and outdoor allergens – such as seasonal pollen, mould as well as second-hand tobacco smoke, and air pollution. Strong soaps and perfume can also be triggers.
Other triggers for asthma in children can include cold and dry air, physical activity, stress, certain medications, and viral infections.
Factors associated with asthma prevalence or disease severity in South African children include the adoption of an urban lifestyle, atopy (a genetic predisposition to having allergies), obesity, respiratory infection, or exposure to industrial pollution or tobacco smoke.
Asthma can be life-threatening when left untreated and cannot be cured but, with the right treatment, most asthmatics will lead completely normal, active lives. The aim of treatment should be to make the lungs and breathing tubes as normal as possible so that there are minimal symptoms and as little disruption to ordinary life as possible.
Children with asthma may need an inhaler. Their treatment will depend on the frequency and severity of symptoms and the different types of inhalers available. There are two main types of inhalers:
- Bronchodilators that open the air passages and relieve symptoms
- Steroids that reduce inflammation in the air passages. This improves asthma symptoms and reduces the risk of severe asthma attacks and death
It can sometimes be difficult to coordinate breathing using an inhaler, especially for children and during emergency situations. Using a spacer device makes it easier and helps the medicine reach the lungs more effectively. A spacer is a plastic container with a mouthpiece or mask at one end and a hole for the inhaler in the other. A homemade spacer, made from a 500ml plastic bottle, can be as effective as a commercially manufactured inhaler.
Reduce your child’s exposure to allergy triggers
The best way to reduce your child’s exposure to seasonal allergy triggers is to ensure they avoid them. A few suggestions include:
- Avoiding activity in the early morning when pollen levels are at their highest.
- Staying indoors on dry, windy days as the pollen counts surge in these conditions.
- Keeping windows shut or using an air conditioner if you know that pollen counts are going to be high.
- Cleaning your child’s bedroom floors often with a vacuum cleaner.
- Washing your child’s bedding in hot water at least once a week.
- Not hanging your child’s laundry outside during high pollen season as pollen can stick to sheets and towels.
- Covering your child’s bedding and pillows with allergen-proof covers.
- Removing old stuffed toys from your child’s bedrooms.
Dr Mkhatshwa says, “If your child is experiencing asthma symptoms or you think your child might have asthma, it is important for you to talk to your child’s GP. This will help you establish if your child’s symptoms are linked to asthma or whether something else is causing them.”