Asthma is the leading cause of chronic lung disease among children and young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 11 U.S. children suffers from this disease.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung condition producing obstruction of airflow because of spasm of the airways that is reversible with medication.
Fall is a common season for asthma flares, and it is important for sufferers and parents of sufferers to recognize potential triggers, symptoms of a flare, self-monitoring of the disease and indications for evaluation.
Asthma exacerbations can be triggered by a variety of factors, which vary from one asthma sufferer to the next. Triggers can include exercise, aerosols, smoke exposure, and allergens such as pollen and cold air. Among the leading triggers for asthma symptoms in young children is viral illness, such as the common cold. This accounts for the fact that autumn and early winter brings a spike in asthma flares.
The symptoms of an asthma exacerbation can include cough, chest tightness, wheezing and breathing difficulty. Breathing rate may increase as well as use of extra chest muscles to assist breathing. When a flare is significant, the ability to speak may be limited. This is an ominous sign of a severe asthma flare.
Recognizing symptoms of an asthma exacerbation in the earliest stage is important to avert a more serious, even a life-threatening progression. Asthma symptoms that are unresolved with initial medication treatment, persisting or progressing should not be ignored and necessitate medical evaluation. Earlier intervention to reduce airway inflammation can avert more serious consequences of a flare, including the need for hospitalization.
Intervention for an asthma flare is often possible even before the onset of obvious symptoms. This can be accomplished through use of a simple home-monitoring technique known as peak-flow monitoring.
A persons peak flow is the amount of air that can be suddenly and forcibly exhaled. This is monitored with a small portable device known as a peak flow meter. Asthmatics can be trained in the daily use of this device at home. Regular use establishes a normal range for the individual.
Evidence has shown that peak flow may begin to fall up to a couple of days before symptoms of an asthma flare. This reflects the developing airway inflammation. Thus, with regular monitoring, an asthmatic may be able to predict a flare before breathing problems develop. In turn, they can contact their medical provider to discuss possible treatment to prevent a full exacerbation.
Prevention of asthma flares is possible in many circumstances. Careful hand hygiene through frequent handwashing and appropriate pneumonia and influenza vaccinations can reduce the risk of flares because of illness. Identifying and controlling other triggers such as allergies and reducing smoke exposure are both also helpful. Finally, working with a physician to create a personalized asthma action plan can help control this chronic condition.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.