Houston Area Pediatric Specialists

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Can Children Outgrow Asthma?

Perhaps the most common question a parent asks me about asthma is whether the disease is life long.  This question is hard to answer and it is risky to assume that children may "outgrow" their condition.  SS

Patients can’t outgrow breathing illness

It’s not the news parents want to hear, especially those who have watched their children gasp for every breath.

   But the reality is that you can’t outgrow asthma.

   Sure, the symptoms might ease, especially during teenage years. And, yes, getting a handle on any triggers that might worsen the problem — mold, pollen, dust mites, smoke, pollution and strong odors chief among them — can help.

   Still, “Asthma is a chronic disease, not a temporary condition,” said Dr. Jonathan Parsons, a pulmonologist and associate director of the Asthma Center at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.

   “It’s like high blood pressure or diabetes. There’s waxing and waning of the symptoms, but you have to be aware that you have it, and you have to know how to manage it.”

   Doctors say that asthma is most often diagnosed in children, and of those, about 90 percent experience a recurrence of symptoms, Parsons said.

   Managing the condition becomes a way of life. Asthma occurs when airways are narrow and swollen, impeding the flow and speed of air intake.

   “That’s a wheeze,” Parsons said.

   But sufferers don’t have to huff and puff all the time to have the problem. Asthma can manifest itself as a cough or an uncomfortable feeling or tightness in the chest or can masquerade as a runny nose attributed to a sinus problem or allergies.

   The only way to really diagnosis it is to undergo pulmonary-function tests, which measure airflow.

   Parents often don’t want to accept the diagnosis, said Dr. Karen S. McCoy, chief of the Division of Pediatric Pulmonology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

   “An asthma diagnosis is perfect for making a parent as worried and apprehensive as they can be,” McCoy said. “They don’t want to think that their child would have something ongoing or chronic, and the potential for ongoing and long-term medications is a concern for them.”

   She said childhood asthmatics often get a respite during their teenage years mostly because teens aren’t as prone to viral infections, which trigger symptoms, and because a change in the size of the airways means that a little bit of swelling doesn’t affect breathing as much.

   But as those kids grow older, they must remember to watch for the signs again.

   Xandula Gaitor said she wishes her two sons were so lucky.

   Her boys, now ages 20 and 10, have long struggled with severe asthma. Her older son, Alwyn Burns, caught a break in his teen years, but that was largely because his condition was so severe that the family relocated to Phoenix for its drier climate, she said.

   To help her younger son, Isaiah Burns, manage his asthma, they relocated to Alabama for a time.

   Now they are back in Westerville to be closer to family, and Isaiah’s symptoms remain severe.

   Gaitor said that when Alwyn was 5 months old and doctors diagnosed his asthma, she was scared yet relieved to know why he suffered terrifying breathing episodes.

   “I just said, ‘OK. Tell me what we need to do and how we can get him better.’”

   Alwyn’s asthma is so severe that the smell of cleaning supplies can trigger an attack. So can a whiff of smoke. And his linens must be washed often in extra-hot water to kill dust mites.

   “It has altered our lifestyle in so many ways,” Gaitor said.

   Treating childhood or adult asthma is largely the same — a maintenance dose of inhaled steroids to reduce inflammation in the airways and a rescue inhaler or breathing machine (called a nebulizer) for serious episodes.

   While childhood patients typically don’t outgrow asthma, some adults end up developing the breathing disorder. It’s called adult-onset asthma, but Parsons said it’s virtually impossible to tell whether the inflammation is new or had always been there.

   Genetics and family history play a role, and exposure to mold or chemicals can make a difference. hzachariah@dispatch.com  


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