Kids asthma: Tips for an asthma-healthy home

Sep 24, 2011 at 7:25 p.m. ET

More than 24 million Americans suffer from asthma, and 7 million of them are our kids. With school back in session, your kids are spending more time in enclosed spaces with other kids and are exposed to a wide range of germs and possible asthma triggers. We talked with Dr. Reynold Panettieri Jr., an asthma specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, about the dangers of asthma for kids and how we parents can help them manage the condition.

Girl with inhaler

Asthma can be fatal

SheKnows: What exactly is asthma, and can it be life-threatening?

Dr. Panettieri: Asthma is a clinical disease characterized by increased sensitivity to allergens and environmental triggers that cause the airways in the lungs to become blocked or narrowed, resulting in the commonly known symptoms including shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough. The symptoms often subside either spontaneously or as the result of therapy. If asthma symptoms persist and worsen in severity to the point that airflow in and out of the airways becomes completely blocked, then patients may experience a life-threatening asthma flare-up or attack. Fortunately, asthma mortality has declined in the past 10 years, but one patient with asthma dies every 30 minutes in the United States.

Asthma is on the rise

SheKnows: Is there a rise in asthma cases in the United States?

Dr. Panettieri: In the United States and globally, the prevalence of asthma is increasing. The precise reasons for the increase in asthma cases remain unclear. Interestingly, air pollution in industrial countries has improved over the past 20 years; however, asthma prevalence continues to climb. Experts believe that the increases in asthma prevalence may relate to more virulent viruses, indoor air pollution or potentially to decreased vitamin D exposure. Although these remain hypotheses, the cause for increases in asthma prevalence is likely multifactorial.

Asthma is not preventable

SheKnows: What can parents do to help prevent their children from developing asthma?

Dr. Panettieri: Since asthma is a hereditary disease, there is little that parents can do to prevent their child from having asthma. The precise genes that induce asthma remain unknown, and to date, there is no vaccine that will prevent children from getting the disease. Importantly, parents can be vigilant in looking for common symptoms, which include chest tightness, cough and wheeze. If their child is experiencing these types of symptoms frequently, parents should visit their child's physician. If their child is diagnosed with asthma, parents should work with their child's doctor to develop an asthma action plan, which is critically important to preventing asthma from progressing.

Know your asthma triggers

SheKnows: What are some common asthma triggers?

Dr. Panettieri: Each patient responds to asthma triggers in a unique manner. Some triggers such as cold air and pollens are seasonal in nature, causing the symptoms of asthma during the peak seasons of spring and fall. Viral infections are another common trigger, occurring more in the winter.

Recent evidence suggests that homes may harbor considerable indoor allergens and irritants that can worsen asthma symptoms. Such triggers include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) typically found in paint, lacquers and varnishes. Others include dander from cats, dogs and other furry animals.

Tips for an asthma-healthy home

SheKnows: How can parents keep an asthma-healthy home?

Dr. Panettieri: Importantly, parents can try to minimize asthma triggers and maintain an asthma-healthy home by following some simple tips. For example:

  • Choose hard-surface flooring instead of carpet and hanging blinds in lieu of drapes to provide ease in cleaning and decrease the absorption of dust mites and pollens.
  • Select paints, varnishes and cleaning products with the lowest VOC levels to minimize the impact the fumes can have on asthma.
  • Frequent vacuuming and regularly changing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) filters may also help minimize asthma triggers within the home.
  • Hypo-allergenic stuffed toys that can withstand frequent washing can also reduce exposure to asthma triggers.

For more asthma-healthy home tips, visit Build Smart, Breathe Easier is a national asthma education program sponsored by Merck and conducted in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. In addition to building four asthma-healthy houses across the country with Habitat for Humanity, the program is designed to help educate about the importance of maintaining an asthma-healthy home and ways to help manage the disease.

Help your kids manage their asthma

SheKnows: What are your tips for managing asthma in kids?

Dr. Panettieri: The recognition of asthma symptoms and prompt intervention with current medicines to treat asthma are the best ways to manage the disease in children. Following healthcare providers' recommendations to reduce exposure to triggers, such as those previously mentioned, and frequent follow-up with a healthcare provider is critical in helping to improve the quality of life of patients. Importantly, all children should exercise, and although exercise can trigger asthma symptoms, optimally managed asthma will not impede exercise.

Asthma resources

SheKnows: What are some resources for parents for more information?

Dr. Panettieri: There are many websites that can give more information about asthma. These websites include:

More on asthma

Lack of vitamin D tied to asthma attacks in kids
Asthma needs an action plan
A tennis pro's story of coping with asthma