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Get Ahead Kids® Feature Article
Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 3, No. 2 - March/April 2011

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By Dr. Kim Chilman-Blair

A person can survive for weeks without food, days without water but only minutes without air.

Asthma is a common condition, occurring in 300 million people worldwide, many of them children.

Many charities, forums and various media have highlighted awareness of this long-term non-contagious condition all over the world. But, few people are educated on how serious asthma attacks can actually be.

Lacking this knowledge could potentially be very dangerous, particularly with the care of children. The ins and outs of this condition should be explained so sufferers and their carers understand treatment and deal with attacks.

So What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a condition that affects the tubes in the lungs which allow you to breathe.

Normally the airways are responsible for delivering oxygen and removing carbon dioxide throughout the entire body. This is achieved through a network of tubes which get smaller and smaller until the oxygen can pass through to the bloodstream.

Asthmatics have sensitive airways. This means when they come into contact with a trigger the airways become inflamed and swollen. Muscles in the lungs tighten causing the tubes to narrow making it difficult to breathe.
Everyone is affected in a different way, so sometimes identifying an asthma attack can be difficult. The most common visible symptoms associated with asthma, include wheezing, breathlessness and coughing. Some people may also complain of tightness in the chest and describe an asthmatic attack as feeling like breathing through a straw.

Identifying these symptoms is important so the attack can be treated immediately. Neglecting it only makes the symptoms worse and prolongs the attack. Medication to treat asthma aims to either suppress the attack or prevent it. There are many different types of medication in the form of inhalers or tablets.

Relievers or bronchodilators are taken at the onset of an attack. These are inhalers that allow you to breathe a fine mist of medication directly into the lungs where they get to work straight away. Relievers relax the constricting muscles around the bronchial tubes opening the airways.

Steroids are another type of treatment used during an attack. These are powerful drugs that reduce the swelling and soreness in the lungs. Steroids are only recommended for a short time, usually between 3-14 days.
Steroids have side effects and are the reason for short courses. They can be addictive and associated with long term effects like osteoporosis or brittle bones.

The other types of medicines, that are taken every day either as an inhaler or a tablet, aim to prevent attacks from occurring. They are anti-inflammatory, which means they reduce the swelling and inflammation that causes the tubes to become smaller.

Sometimes medication can't stop an attack, inflammation and narrowing of the tubes in your lungs continues after taking medication. Normally this occurs without visible symptoms but causes difficulty breathing. In these cases, emergency treatment should immediately be sought at the hospital.

It's possible to monitor and control asthma with the aid of apparatus such as a peak flow meter. This small instrument allows you to monitor asthma progression each day, by measuring how much air you can blow into the machine over a certain time. This measurement is the amount of air your lungs can hold or lung capacity. Your doctor will show you how to use it and may prescribe it after diagnosis to assess how well treatment is working.

What Causes Asthma?

It is not known what causes asthma. Despite this it is known asthma is more common within families and in children whose mother's have smoked during pregnancy. Diagnosis is not limited to children. For adults if the condition is not a continuation of childhood asthma it is usually new triggers in the environment around them that increases sensitivity in the lungs.

The environmental trigger for both children and adults may be anything from dust mites, mould and pollen to fury animals, perfume, chalk dust to cold air. Another possible trigger is physical activity. This is known as exercise induced asthma. In addition to the above triggers, various hormonal changes particularly in teenage girls may worsen symptoms.

It's important to keep your inhaler at hand as it is not always possible to stay away from triggers.

If an asthma attack is likely, for example before taking part in a sport, it is important that medication is taken before the event to prevent an asthma attack from happening.

Some scientists believe another way of preventing asthma attack is by eating a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables and drinking plenty of water. Although this is a theory, it won't harm you to try these.

Having asthma, or a child with asthma, should not hinder the way you live. This has been proven by various athletes including sports icons Paula Radcliffe, Ian Botham and Paul Scholes. So although you can't spend minutes without air, people with asthma shouldn't spend a second thinking they can't be like everyone else.

What to do During an Asthma Attack

  1. Take your reliever immediately.
  2. Sit down & take slow steady breaths.
  3. If your breathing does not come back to normal take another 2 puffs of your reliever. This can be repeated up to a maximum of 10 times every 2 minutes or until your breathing comes back to normal.
  4. If you are worried or your breathing pattern does not change, call an ambulance.
  5. If you are waiting longer than 15 minutes repeat step 3.

Parent's Checklist

As a parent of an asthmatic child you may worry about your child's wellbeing when they are away from your care. By following the steps below you are able to ensure your child will be in the safest possible hands. Ensure the school or carers;

Have an asthma policy
Demonstrate an understanding of your child's needs
Know how to deal with an emergency
Provide appropriate medication & spares just in case
Know what triggers an attack
Know who to contact in an emergency
Make all carers aware of any changes in the medication


Dr Kim Chilman-Blair is the Founder of Medikidz, a series of medical comic books to help children understand what is happening inside their bodies and lessen the fear that comes with a diagnosis. Medikidz now has over 20 titles, including Type 1 Diabetes, Epilepsy and Depression. MediKidz aims to change how children receive information and support about their conditions.

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