What It Is
Learning that their child has asthma is enough to knock the wind out of parents. But with childhood asthma on the rise, more families are facing this challenge. Twelve percent of American children have been diagnosed with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), making it likely that you have, or know, at least one child with this chronic inflammatory lung disease.
No doubt you have many questions about detection and treatment. Here's help so your family can breathe easier.
What is asthma, and why does it seem as if so many young children have it nowadays?
It's a chronic condition in which the lungs overreact to triggers, typically allergens (such as dust mites or pollen), and also viruses, exercise, cold air, cigarette smoke, or strong fragrances. During an attack, the bronchial airways become swollen and inflamed, the cells lining the airways produce excess mucus, and the muscles surrounding them constrict, making breathing difficult. Repeated attacks may cause permanent lung damage; severe, acute ones can be life-threatening.
For unclear reasons, asthma rates in children ages 4 and younger increased 160 percent between 1980 and 1994 alone. The numbers continue to climb, and scientists aren't sure why. Some speculate that poor indoor or outdoor air quality may be to blame, explains Martha White, MD, research director at the Institute for Asthma and Allergy in Wheaton, Maryland.
Others point to the "hygiene" theory: Better vaccinations and increased sanitation have left our immune systems idle and ready to run amok, spurring a rise in immune disorders such as asthma.