Monday Medical: Make sure kids breathe easy |

Monday Medical: Make sure kids breathe easy

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Today

Monday Medical

If you find your child is often coughing and wheezing, the common cold may not be to blame.

Rather, it could be asthma.

Almost 10 percent of children in the United States, or 7.1 million kids, have asthma, which can result in emergency room visits or missed school days.

"It's the most common chronic illness for children," said Abigail Hoffner, a nurse practitioner in Steamboat Springs.

Asthma can strike at any age, and while the cause of asthma isn't clear, genetics and the environment play a role.

"People seem to be more susceptible if there's a family history or if they have allergies," Hoffner said.

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It's important to treat asthma, especially for children whose lungs are still developing. Otherwise, chronic inflammation can result in scarring of lung tissue and decreased lung function.

With asthma, the lungs swell, become inflamed and sometimes produce excess mucus. Signs of asthma in children include:

• A frequent cough, or coughing during the night

• Wheezing

• Difficulty breathing with exercise

• Frequent respiratory illnesses or colds that last more than 10 days

If you suspect your child has asthma, the first step is to see your medical provider, who will perform a physical exam and review the child's and family's medical history. For older children, a breathing test may be done to record lung function.

If there's a diagnosis of asthma, the provider rates the severity of the disease and then prescribes medication to reduce and prevent inflammation. Most medications are taken through inhalers.

"There's very little systemic uptake, which means that medication stays right there in the lungs and works there," Hoffner said.

But treatment doesn't end there: With a chronic illness such as asthma, it's especially important to stay in touch with the provider, adjusting medication as needed.

"You evaluate the response to the therapy, and then it's a whole lot of follow up to (check) how things are going and if things change," Hoffner said. "Even though it's a chronic disease, asthma is not a steady-state disease, meaning that you can have good years and bad years. Even once you've gotten your treatment down, and you think you're doing well, you can end up having a bad episode."

There are a variety of triggers for asthma, including allergies, illnesses such as colds or the flu, irritants such as perfumes or smoke and exercise.

Exercise-induced asthma is a type of asthma that is triggered only by exercising.

"These kids tend to cough with exercise, seem to fatigue faster than their peers and have a lower stamina for exercise," Hoffner said.

But with proper treatment, asthma doesn't have to slow down an athlete.

"I want (young athletes) to feel like their asthma is not holding them back at all," Hoffner said. "If they want to go on and compete or work for scholarships for college, it's so important they take that ownership of their asthma."

When treating asthma, it's important to follow through with treatment and to observe proper technique, such as using a spacer with the inhaler.

An asthma action plan, which can be created with a medical provider, is also helpful: It helps teachers, coaches, parents and others understand what to do when children experience various symptoms.

As with any chronic disease, communication with your provider is key.

"Don't be shy about talking to your provider about asthma or asking them questions about an action plan or medication that's reasonably priced," Hoffner said. "Everybody's end goal is that the child ends up having no permanent lung function problems and can go on and live a normal life."

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at