Childhood asthma is a condition that's tough for both parents and kids to cope with--when their lungs and airways get inflamed, youngsters can experience attacks of coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. Those attacks are not only disruptive, with the potential to interrupt sleep and outdoor activities, and necessitate extra doctor visits, but also scary if they are severe. And while a recent Pediatrics study reports that U.S. childhood asthma rates are starting to plateau, it also notes that cases are still on the rise for some groups of children, such as teens and kids living in poverty. The study's authors said that exposure to environmental factors such as air pollution, secondhand smoke and mold may be a big reason why the rate of asthma cases hasn't decreased among the poorest children.
Environmental exposure to irritants is generally a trigger for asthma attacks in children, and it's thought to be a possible cause of childhood asthma, along with genetics and respiratory infections early in youth. “Environmental exposure takes its toll on children because their bodies are still developing, which is why it's important to know how to best protect your child from allergens and pollutants,” says Lisa Hoang, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group.
That means taking precautions both inside and outside the home. Outdoors, children are susceptible to pollution, smog and allergens such as pollen. "That doesn't mean you should always keep your child indoors, because he or she still needs exercise and activity," Dr. Hoang says. "But it does mean, for instance, that you'll want to know your area's pollen count if that's a trigger, and limit outdoor time during those peak levels. After a child is done playing outside, she should remove her shoes before entering the house and change out of her play clothes to prevent bringing pollen into the house. On days when smog or pollen is heavy, your home's windows and doors should remain shut. Certain medications can also help control your child’s reaction to allergens that may trigger asthma attacks. Smoke from fires can also trigger asthma attacks, so if there is a local wildfire, it is important to be vigilant about your child’s symptoms as well as limit time outside when the air quality is bad. Second-hand tobacco smoke can also play a role in poor asthma control as well as cause asthma attacks. If there is a person who does smoke in the family, quitting or limiting exposure will definitely help a child with asthma."
Inside the home, there are other things to watch out for. Here are some of the most common indoor allergen offenders and suggestions on how to protect your child from allergens and pollutants:
Whether indoors or out, you and your child should be alert to possible signs of an asthma attack, Dr. Hoang says. "Asthma symptoms can be different for each child. But if you see your child wheezing or coughing, or if she says she has shortness of breath or feels pain in her chest, those can be warning signs that your child is having an asthmatic reaction. If your child doesn't have asthma but exhibits those symptoms, schedule a visit with your pediatrician who can run some tests to diagnose childhood asthma. In either case, if your child has severe trouble breathing and can't talk, get emergency help."
In the end, limiting environmental exposure takes some effort, but it's more than worth it. "If you avoid those triggers as much as possible, it can help cut the risk of asthma attacks, and that in turn can help your child lead a normal, active and full life," Dr. Hoang says.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.