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Asthma belabors breathing, spells out long-term problems for young children

Published: Friday, Nov. 11 2011 3:53 p.m. MST

As one of the most common chronic diseases in children, asthma plagues more than 6 million kids in the country and about 67,000 in Utah.

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SALT LAKE CITY — When a child tires more quickly than his or her peers, coughs a lot at night, seems more limited in physical activities or gets sicker than others in their play group, there may be something to blame.

"Diagnosing asthma early is key to keeping it under control," said Dr. Kristina McKinley, pediatric hospitalist at Intermountain Healthcare's Riverton Hospital.

As one of the most common chronic diseases in children, she said asthma plagues more than 6 million kids in the country and about 67,000 in Utah.

"It is the leading cause of school absences among children," McKinley said, adding that missed work hours, as well as prevention and treatment efforts for asthma, makes the disease very costly for Americans. Costs have been on the rise for at least the past decade.

"It's a chronic disease that doesn't go away," she said. "And there is no cure for it."

McKinley and Intermountain's Dr. Alyson Edmunds, also a pediatric hospitalist, will be featured during Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Hotline, where they will take questions about RSV and pediatric asthma and provide advice free of charge. From 10 a.m. until noon, people can call 1-800-925-8177 or post questions on the Deseret News' Facebook page, www.facebook.com/desnews.

Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system that affects everyone differently. It is typically caused by genetics and/or environmental factors. Attacks, in which a person cannot draw in enough air, can be triggered by any number of things, including a virus, air pollution, dust and animal dander, second-hand smoke, mold and mildew and even insects and cockroaches in a person's living space.

The goal, McKinley said, is to identify those triggers and keep airways from becoming inflamed in the first place, thus preventing attacks and maintaining a normal lifestyle as much as possible.

Treatment and management of the disease is much the same for adults as it is for children, however in small children, good habits need to be encouraged early on. Physicians have a number of tools to help children with asthma to develop a plan of action. The plan often includes identifying when a rescue inhaler, containing the broncho-dilator albuterol, is necessary, as well as when triggers are present and affecting their airways.

Children older than 5 years of age can participate in pulmonary testing to determine their level of control of the disease. It's typically a good sign if asthma attacks are rare.

Symptoms that end up being persistent, such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, as well as fatigue or irritability, usually lead to the need for long-term medication or more intense treatments.

The ultimate goal, however, is to avoid hospitalizations and having to fight for air.

The American Lung Association hosts various events, including Camp Wyatt during Utah's summer months, where children age 8 to 18 learn how to stay physically active while keeping asthma symptoms at bay.

"Kids with asthma don't have to have a sedentary lifestyle," McKinley said. Other educational programs are also available within various communities throughout the state.

While the symptoms can prove nagging at times, children do need reminders for a continued assessment of their control of the disease. Minimizing chronic symptoms, attacks and all the while not limiting daily activity is a likely a priority for anyone suffering from asthma.

Hotline today

The Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Hotline focuses on RSV and pediatric asthma. From 10 a.m. to noon today, Dr. Alyson Edmunds and Dr. Kristina McKinley, both pediatric hospitalists at Riverton Hospital's children's unit, will answer questions. Call 1-800-925-8177, toll-free. Anyone can also post questions during that time on the Deseret News Facebook page, www.facebook.com/desnews, and the doctors will do their best to answer them.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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