If you’re not a parent, grandparent or caregiver of a child with asthma, chances are you know someone who is. In Michigan, asthma is pretty common. More than 26% of Michigan kids have been told they have asthma — that’s the seventh-highest rate in the country, according to information from the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.
But what is asthma and how is it treated? We asked Dr. Pavadee Poowuttikul, division chief of allergy/immunology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan to share the basics.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory airway disease that can be caused by allergy and/or genetic susceptibility. “Children with asthma have difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and wheezing, which can happen with viral infection or during exercise,” Dr. Poowuttikul says.
Parents typically sense something is amiss when their young child struggles to keep up with peers because of shortness of breath, or if the child starts wheezing when they get colds and upper respiratory infections. Persistent wheezing should be evaluated by a specialist early on to prevent it from becoming a more severe form of the disease, says Dr. Poowuttikul.
Could your child’s asthma be caused by allergies?
Allergens are common triggers for asthma. Allergens can also cause seasonal allergy. “If your child has frequent cold-like symptoms, runny nose, congestion, sneezing but no fever, this could be caused by allergy triggers,” Dr. Poowuttikul says. Allergens can also cause hives, an itchy skin rash or eczema. There are many presentations of allergies.”
In some cases, parents are simply unaware of the trigger, and will only notice a problem when their child doesn’t sleep well at night and experiences poor performance at school as a result. “If you suspect any kind of symptoms, talk with your doctor to get a referral to an allergy and asthma specialist, which will help you identify the trigger faster and prevent a worsening of symptoms,” Dr. Poowuttikul says.
A specialist may perform a non-invasive allergy scratch test using a plastic toothpick-like instrument on the back for seasonal allergies and on the forearm for food allergies. “It’s less painful than a blood draw or a vaccine and we can read the results in 15-20 minutes. Patients leave with a diagnosis,” Dr. Poowuttikul explains.
To test for asthma, the specialist will perform a pulmonary function test, typically in older children. “This is a machine with a tube the child blows into that evaluates lung function,” she says.
If it turns out your child has asthma, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the condition, including what treatments might work best for your child. “Children’s Hospital of Michigan’s specialized allergy and asthma team has an asthma/allergy specialist, nurse educator and social worker who can help you and your child understand asthma better and the medications used to treat it. If your child is admitted to the hospital for asthma, there will be an automatic consultation with this asthma team,” says Dr. Poowuttikul.
Children’s Hospital of Michigan has allergy clinic locations in Troy, Clinton Township, Canton, Dearborn and Southfield that can offer the same treatment as the hospital in Detroit, she says. And here’s a bonus: because Children’s Hospital of Michigan’s allergy and asthma specialists are combined board certified, they can treat adults, too, which is handy when asthma and allergies run in the family.
How is asthma treated?
A specialist may prescribe an inhaler to reduce or treat asthma symptoms, and, if asthma is caused by allergies, your child can take allergy medicines in the form of a liquid, pill or nasal spray. Allergy shots can be successful, too. “Some patients who receive shots regularly can stop the pathology of the symptoms, with a very high success rate,” says Dr. Poowuttikul. “The effect can be long-lasting.”
A newer way to treat asthma is monoclonal antibody treatment, which “binds to the antibodies or receptors that cause asthma/allergy problems,” says Dr. Poowuttikul, adding that this treatment is injected subcutaneously in a similar way to insulin. “This can reduce hospital admissions and asthma attacks, and helps severe asthma and eczema significantly.”
When a child’s asthma is under control, it can decrease the likelihood of hospitalization or trips to the emergency department with asthma symptoms. “Having asthma doesn’t mean a child has less quality of life than their peers,” says Dr. Poowuttikul. “A child with asthma can have zero symptoms with proper management with the right medications and avoiding triggers.”