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Ask Dr. Sears: At-Home Asthma Treatments

Q. My child was just diagnosed with asthma. Along with his doctor-prescribed medication, is there anything I can do at home that will help him breathe easier and help keep asthma attacks to a minimum?

A. In our pediatric practice we use the pills/skills medical model for treating asthma, which simply means that in addition to medication to relax the bronchi (breathing passages), it's important to learn a list of self-help skills to help your child breathe more easily during his wheezing episodes. As a result, you will find that as you develop better skills, your child will need fewer "pills". The pills/skills concept is critical for dealing with any potentially chronic illness, such as asthma, as this is the medical model that is proven most effective in the long-term treatment of children with this disease. Here are some of the ways you can deal with your child's illness at home, and keep attacks at bay:

Identify the trigger 

Become a parent detective. When your child starts wheezing, try to find out what may have triggered the attack. If it occurred during the night, most likely it was due to allergens or dust collectors in your child's bedroom. Dust-proof the bedroom as much as possible. Remove stuffed animals, feather pillows, and fuzzy toys that can collect allergens, and ban pets from the bedroom. Run a HEPA air purifier to remove the allergens. During the winter months, turn off or turn down the central heat as allergens can blow through the heating ducts, and use a warm mist vaporizer as a heat source instead. Keeping the humidity around 50% is ideal, however—if the bedroom is too humid, it could trigger the growth of mold, which is also a common allergen.

If the wheezing occurs outdoors, it's possible that certain plants could be the trigger. Or, food allergies could be to blame, with milk, wheat, nuts, soy products and tomatoes being common culprits. Eliminate the suspect food from your child's diet for at least a week to see if his symptoms improve.

Keep a diary 

Write down each time your child wheezes, a possible trigger and how much the wheezing bothers your child. Also, put in how frequently the attacks occur and how long they last. For example: Do they wake him from sleep, keep him from enjoying play or even cause him to panic when he feels like he can't get his breath? Your assessment of your child's degree of severity is very important since this information is necessary for your doctor to prescribe the right medication.

Help your child learn to relax 

The muscles and nerves around the bronchial tree are bothered by stress. If your child feels like he can't get enough air and begins to panic, that in itself can make the airways constrict further and worsen the asthma. As soon as he feels (or you sense) wheezing coming on, teach him to relax, sit still, think happy thoughts, and imagine he's getting lots of air flowing through his lungs. Have him imagine his favorite game or toy. Try reading a relaxing story or singing a soothing lullaby to him. You want to plant into his mind at a very young age that he can improve his breathing on his own. It's the loss of control that causes many children with asthma to panic, making the attack worse.

Boost his immune system 

The latest insight into the prevention and treatment of asthma is boosting the patient's immune system. Asthma is an inflammatory illness, so the healthier your child's overall immune system, the less bothersome his asthma will be. Feed him lots of fruits and vegetables, which are packed with phytonutrients—germ fighters that are found in these colorful foods. Also, add more omega-3 oils to his diet. Anti-inflammatory Omega-3's are found in coldwater fish such as wild salmon. In fact, new asthma-treatment research has found that children given omega-3 supplements, either in wild salmon or fish oil supplements (about a gram per day), can lower the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. On the flip side, pro-inflammatory oils that trigger inflammation are partially hydrogenated oils, and vegetable oils such as safflower, soybean and sunflower (also known as omega 6 oils). Limit these oils in your child's diet as much as possible.

Keep your child lean 

Recent research has linked obesity with a higher incidence of asthma. Being overweight produces inflammation throughout the whole body, and will make your child's attacks worse. An overall healthy diet, along with exercise, is good preventive medicine in itself for just about any illness.

The good news is that most children outgrow asthma, and this will be even more likely if you make these self-help home skills a natural part of your child's daily routine.