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Managing Winter Asthma Symptoms

Over 23 million Americans have asthma, a chronic lung disease that affects breathing by causing tightening of the airways, inflammation and increased mucous production. Inflammation makes airways smaller, so that it is more difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 13 million children are affected by this disease, and it is the most common cause of hospitalizations for children under the age of 15. Asthma tends to run in families, and although it cannot be cured, it can be controlled.

Dropping temperatures and cold dry air outside and contrasting warm dry air inside can worsen symptoms in children. Coupled with the increased risk of respiratory viruses that circulate in schools and public areas in the winter months, children with asthma may experience increased flare ups and more severe symptoms.

Symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, chest ‘tightness’, wheezing, and a chronic cough that lasts over a week, often occurring during the night or after exercise. During an asthma attack, the lining of lung airways swells and mucus glands increase production, while muscles around airways tighten to make them narrower. All of these changes block the flow of air, making it hard to breathe. It’s important during an attack to stay calm, and encourage your child to relax. Take quick relief medication as your asthma action plan dictates, and if quick relief medicine does not help, call your doctor and/or 9-1-1 and seek immediate assistance.

“Here in Lowell, asthma rates are higher than the state average,” says Dr. Brian Sanders, Pediatric Emergency Department physician at Lowell General Hospital. “In younger children, asthma attacks can be triggered from indoor elements, such as dry, forced hot air, pet dander, dust mites, mold and dust
from holiday decorations, and smoke from a fireplace. These exacerbated symptoms can escalate and often require hospitalization and vigorous respiratory therapy.”

Knowing what causes asthma symptoms in your child is an important step to controlling symptoms. Allergy testing may help identify triggers. Your child’s pediatrician can help you recognize what makes the asthma worse, and help find simple solutions to reduce and avoid asthma triggers.

As always, make sure children are consistently taking medications as prescribed, and have a rescue inhaler with you at all times. “It’s important to trust your instincts as a parent, as you know your child best,” says Dr. Sanders. “With proper treatment for your child’s asthma, including management of short-term medications such as inhalers to treat symptoms, and long-term control medications that treat the disease, your child should be able to stay active and symptom-free.”

When outside:

  • Make sure your child's mouth is covered with a scarf or neck gaiter. The humidity of his or her breath will warm the air he or she is inhaling
  • Try to promote indoor exercise in extreme temperatures
  • Try to limit exertion whenever possible (i.e., hot chocolate or snack breaks while skating, sledding, or other outside activities)

For inside:

  • Keep pets out of the bedroom as much as possible
  • Dust and vacuum often
  • Change the air filters in your home heating system
  • Get a flu shot
  • Make sure children wash their hands often to prevent colds and flu from spreading
  • Cover bedding with dust mite resistant covers
  • Humidify the air in the home. Ideally, the humidity should be about 30-45%. Higher levels encourage the growth of dust mites

To learn more about asthma, visit the American Lung Association’s website.

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