Health Tips: Help With Asthma

Steps you can take to minimize the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. Information on medication and healthy living.

Asthma is a potentially fatal condition, which must be taken seriously. It is however, a very common condition that occurs when the airways, which allow air to flow to and from the lungs, swell and tighten, restricting airflow and making it hard to breathe. During an asthma attack, the smallest airways (the bronchioles) constrict, causing the release of chemicals such as histamine, which increases inflammation and swelling and produces excess mucus. Though many asthma attacks are mild and easily controlled at home, severe ones can cause sufferers to suffocate and die.

The symptoms of asthma include tightness in the chest; wheezing; shortness of breath; coughing, often with phlegm; and restlessness, which can be triggered by environmental pollutants such as pollen, dust mites and pets. Internal triggers on the other hand, may be less obvious; they include stress, anxiety, temperature changes, exercise and respiratory infections. Asthma symptoms often flare up during the early hours of the morning while persistent coughing - with or without wheezing - often interrupts sleep patterns.

What causes asthma?

The disease is thought to have become more common in recent years; this may be a real increase or it may just be that doctors are getting better at recognizing and diagnosing it. Although asthma is particularly difficult to diagnose in children - symptoms such as coughing and wheezing are hallmarks of a number of respiratory conditions - asthma is commonly found in children with other disorders that have an allergic basis, such as hay fever and eczema. It has an entirely physical basis and is not caused by 'nerves', although an emotional crisis can set off an asthma attack.

Without treatment asthma can be fatal

Although this lung disease always requires medical management, there are several steps you can take to minimize the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. When a child has a persistent cough or problem with wheezing, parents should be aware that asthma is a possibility and make an appointment to see the doctor. The signs that suggest asthma include persistent coughing, a family history of asthma or allergic conditions such as hay fever or eczema, coughing that is worse at night, coughing and wheezing that gets worse after exercise, and getting out of breath easily. Both children with asthma and their carers need to be involved in monitoring the disorder. Parents should check their child's peak flow regularly once he or she is above the age of six or seven. This gives an objective indication of how well the asthma is being controlled and is better than just relying on symptoms or how frequently the inhaler is used. Chart these readings on graph paper.

What to do in an emergency

Asthma can be frightening for both the child and the parents, and it is typically worse at night. If you think it is getting worse, check your child's peak flows to see if they are a lot lower than normal. Then, if your child is distressed and if the usual medication is having no effect, ring your doctor and tell him or her about the symptoms. Be prepared to take your child to the ER quickly if necessary. If transport is a problem or the child is too ill to be transported, your doctor may have to make a house call. In either case, find out how long it will take for you to see the doctor; if there is going to be a significant delay, you may need to dial for an ambulance or take your child to the nearest accident and emergency department.

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