You may know someone who has asthma because over 20 million Americans have been diagnosed with this ever-growing disease. Asthma can sometimes be life-threatening, but it is nearly always life-interrupting. An adult or child with asthma has to be constantly alert to activities or situations that could cause an asthma attack.
Even if you don't have asthma or even know anyone with asthma, there are far-reaching effects that touch all of us. We need to be concerned about an ailment that afflicts so many Americans. According to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), every day in America:
What is Asthma - Symptoms & Diagnosis
- 40,000 people miss school or work due to asthma.
- 30,000 people have an asthma attack.
- 5,000 people visit the emergency room due to asthma.
- 1,000 people are admitted to the hospital due to asthma.
- 11 people die from asthma.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines asthma as "a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing."
Primary care physicians usually make the initial diagnosis of asthma based on:
Although these are indicators, these symptoms do not necessarily mean the diagnosis will be asthma. Likewise, the absence of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that it is not asthma.
- The doctor will order tests to rule out other diseases that have the same symptoms (such reflux disease, vocal cord dysfunction, or sleep apnea).
- A lung function test will be performed to measure capacity to breathe in and out and how fast air can be expelled.
- Medical History:
- The doctor will also carefully review the patient's medical history.
- One important factor that may point to asthma is a history of asthma and/or allergies in the family.
- A Physical Exam:
- The doctor will also conduct a physical exam to listen to breathing and look for other signs that frequently accompany asthma that include wheezing, a runny nose or swollen nasal passages, and allergic skin conditions such as eczema.
Children & Asthma
Childhood asthma usually begins before 5 years of age. It is difficult to diagnose asthma in babies and young children, so doctors rely heavily on medical history and outward symptoms. Often, a short round of asthma medication is prescribed to see if symptoms improve. As children grow, airways grow, and asthma symptoms may go away.
Strong indicators of childhood asthma include:
Here are some disturbing facts about childhood asthma compiled by the AAFA:
- One or both parents have asthma.
- The child has signs of allergies, including the allergic skin condition called eczema.
- The child has allergic reactions to pollens or other airborne allergens.
- The child wheezes even when he or she doesn't have a cold or other infection.
Asthma Triggers: The Allergy Connection
- Nearly 5 million asthma sufferers are under age 18.
- It is the most common chronic childhood disease, affecting more than one child in 20.
- Nearly half (44%) of all asthma hospitalizations are for children.
- Asthma is the third-ranking cause of hospitalization of children.
- Asthma is the #1 cause of school absenteeism among children accounting for more than 14 million total missed days of school.
- It accounts for an annual loss of more than 14 million school days per year (approximately 8 days for each student with asthma) and more hospitalizations than any other childhood disease.
- It is estimated that children with asthma spend nearly 8 million days per year restricted to bed.
- The death rate for children under 19 years old has increased by nearly 80% percent since 1980.
Since asthma is closely connected to allergies, controlling allergies is critical to managing asthma (Click here for more information on asthma triggers.). The NIH lists the following asthma triggers and makes suggestions about each trigger:
- Dust Mite Allergen
- Encase your mattress in a special dust-proof cover.
- Encase your pillow in a special dust-proof cover or wash the pillow each week in hot water. Water must be hotter than 130§ F to kill the mites. Cold or warm water used with detergent and bleach can also be effective.
- Wash the sheets and blankets on your bed each week in hot water. (Note from National Allergy: special allergen laundry products are effective against dust mites in any temperature water.)
- Reduce indoor humidity to below 60 percent (ideally between 30-50 percent). Dehumidifiers or central air conditioners can do this.
- Try not to sleep or lie on cloth-covered cushions.
- Remove carpets from your bedroom and those laid on concrete, if you can. (Note from National Allergy: if you can't remove carpet, an allergen-neutralizing carpet treatment is an effective alternative.)
- Keep stuffed toys out of the bed or wash the toys weekly in hot water or cooler water with detergent and bleach.
- Pet Dander
- Keep furred or feathered pets out of your home.
- If you can't keep the pet outdoors, then keep the pet out of your bedroom and other sleeping areas at all times, and keep the door closed. (Note from National Allergy: washing pets in dander-reducing shampoos or applying dander-reducing moisturizers can help if you have an indoor pet.)
- Tobacco Smoke
- If you smoke, ask your doctor for ways to help you quit. Ask family members to quit smoking, too.
- Do not allow smoking in your home or car. (Note from National Allergy: if you are unable to remove tobacco smoke from your home, air purifiers with special filters can help.)
- Fix leaky faucets, pipes, or other sources of water that have mold around them.
- Clean moldy surfaces with a cleaner that has bleach in it. (Note from National Allergy: if the smell of bleach is irritating to you, low-chemical cleaners and low-chemical mold control products are good alternatives.)
- Try to keep your windows closed. (Note from National Allergy: if you feel you must have outside air, a window filter can help.)
- Stay indoors with windows closed from late morning to afternoon, if you can. Pollen and some mold spore counts are highest at that time. (Note from National Allergy: when you have to be outdoors, a mask can block a lot of pollen and mold spores.)
- Ask your doctor whether you need to take or increase anti-inflammatory medicine before your allergy season starts.
- Cold Air
- Keep food and garbage in closed containers. Never leave food out.
- Use poison baits, powders, gels, or paste (for example, boric acid). You can also use traps.
- If a spray is used to kill roaches, stay out of the room until the odor goes away.
- Sulfites in Foods
- Sulfites in foods and beverages: Do not drink beer or wine or eat dried fruit, processed potatoes, or shrimp if they cause asthma symptoms.
- Strong Odors
- If possible, do not use a wood-burning stove, kerosene heater, or fireplace.
- Try to stay away from strong odors and sprays, such as perfume, talcum powder, hair spray, and paints. (Note from National Allergy: cleaning products and personal care products with "no added fragrance" can help.)
- Tell your doctor about all the medicines you take. Include cold medicines, aspirin, vitamins and other supplements, and nonselective beta-blockers (including those in eye drops).
Asthma does not have to mean the end of a normal life but it does have to be properly managed. If you or your child has symptoms, see a doctor for a diagnosis. If the diagnosis is asthma, the doctor may sit down with you and create an Asthma Action Plan. Such a plan includes what you should do when things are going well, what you should do when you notice certain symptoms and how to tell you need to take precautions and possibly start treatment, and how to recognize when you are in danger and what emergency measures to take. The doctor may recommend using a peak flow meter to gauge your air capacity as a tool to manage asthma. Keeping records of peak flow readings and a personal history including triggers you may have encountered can be valuable to your doctor in planning your treatment. Part of your treatment may be asthma medications that are administered with a spacer or a compressor/nebulizer to get the medicine deep into the lungs where it is needed. For maximum control of asthma, always follow your doctor's orders including medication and trigger avoidance.
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The information in this newsletter is for educational purposes only. Always consult with your doctor first about your specific condition, treatment options and other health concerns you may have.
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