Allergies can be fierce in spring and summer. Itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and coughing are uncomfortable and irritating. But if those symptoms occur along with others such as shortness of breath or chest pain, asthma might be to blame.
May is National Asthma Awareness Month, and physicians like Ayham Alshaar from Asthma & Allergy Immunology will gladly discuss the chronic lung disease that affects 25.9 million Americans, including 7.1 million children under age 18.
Asthma typically is diagnosed during childhood, said Alshaar, when a person’s immune system is growing and therefore more prone to infections and viruses. “It is a very common disease in children,” he said. “It can present itself in different ways like coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.”
Some children begin to show signs only at night or during physical exertion, such as during physical education class or when playing a sport. “They cannot catch up with the other children or they feel a tightening,” Alshaar said.
According to the American Lung Association, asthma is a chronic, lifelong, potentially life-threatening disease that has no known cure. But it can be maintained and controlled, allowing most asthma sufferers to live normal, healthy lives.
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In asthma sufferers, airways inside the lungs typically are inflamed and swollen, making them susceptible to dust, chemicals, smoke, pet dander — or even a common cold or weather changes. When triggered, the airways make extra mucus and swell, narrowing the space for air to move in and out of the lungs. The muscles can tighten, making breathing even more difficult and leading to asthma flare-ups, asthma episodes or asthma attacks.
It still is relatively unknown what causes asthma; it is believed genetics are partly to blame. Asthma runs in families and can be inherited. But environmental factors also can play a significant roles.
The condition can be serious — even life-threatening — if not successfully treated.
Asthma can be a seasonal problem for some or a year-round occurrence, Alshaar said.
“It is important for parents to know that if their child has asthma, it does not mean they cannot run or participate in other activities,” he said. “It is important for children to continue to do their activities and live their lives as any other child.”
To do so, each patient should have a management plan in place, often in writing, that can be followed. The plan should outline what to do if the patient is doing well and what to do if they begin displaying symptoms.
“The goal is to control the asthma,” Alshaar said, “so the child lives a normal life.”
This can be achieved with healthy habits like getting enough sleep, prescribing and monitoring medications with zero side effects and, of course, minimizing exposure to known triggers.
“And we customize the treatment based on the age of the patient,” he added.
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One of the major goals, Alshaar said, is to prevent acute attacks, hospitalization or visits to an emergency room. “We don’t want the child to miss school days or activities or for parents to miss work because of asthma treatments in the hospital. Our goal is to have the child live a normal life.”
The action plan is a great way to keep the team on the same page. By explaining to parents what they can do if symptoms are present, Alshaar is allowing them to be proactive in their child’s health.
It is also important to treat the allergy triggers, Alshaar said. “After we identify what the patient is allergic to from skin testing, we can then treat the allergies, which are the triggers. Treating the allergy symptoms can treat the asthma as well.”
Controlling environmental triggers is part of the proactive plan to control or minimize asthma symptoms. Removing those triggers is an important part of the management plan.
Alshaar practices at Allergy Asthma Immunology at 11333 Cortez Blvd., in medical offices near Oak Hill Hospital. Allergy Asthma Immunology began in 1997 and has a second office in Citrus County.
Alshaar’s field of medicine involves more than asthma, he said, and includes food allergies and other environmental allergens. His clients include people with various allergies and asthma.
For more information about asthma and allergies, visit the American Lung Association at www.lung.org.