Family Health Guide

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When children have asthma, the airways leading to the lungs (called bronchial tubes) become inflamed and narrowed. These overly sensitive airways go into spasms, causing repeated episodes of shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing (a whistling sound when your child exhales). Asthma ranges in severity from the mild, intermittent form that barely interferes with kids' lives, to severe, persistent cases that require constant monitoring and can lead to frequent scary trips to the ER. Asthma can be frustrating to a kid who struggles to keep up with friends, and terrifying to parents watching their child fight to breathe.

Asthma is the most common chronic illness among children, although it can affect people of any age. Around 7 million children have been diagnosed, and about 10 to 15 percent of grade school children have or have had asthma. Asthma rates more than doubled between 1980 and 1995, and remain at historically high levels, although encouragingly, death rates from the condition have declined in recent years. About half of all young children diagnosed with asthma appear to outgrow it by adolescence, but these individuals still have sensitive airways and symptoms can reappear later in life.

Asthma can either be the allergic type, prompted by allergies to pollen, pet dander or other allergens, or the non-allergic "intrinsic" type, triggered by things like cold air, viral infections, exercise, stress or smoke. They can also have a combination of the two. Although the triggers are different, the symptoms are the same. Although asthma is a serious, chronic disease, the old stereotype of the lonely asthmatic child trapped in the house, unable to play with friends or participate in sports is far from true. Today, thanks to advances in understanding asthma and effective treatments, kids with well-managed asthma can expect to live as active a life as their non-asthmatic peers - and being active can help improve lung function. In fact, many Olympic athletes have carried inhalers for asthma, and elite athletes like former Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and marathoner Paula Radcliffe haven't let it stop them.