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Learning to Live with Asthma


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Denise Grady

Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

Two young brothers with the same chronic illness. One mother's struggle...and what she knows now about keeping her children healthy.

When I first learned that my older son had asthma, I imagined that it would go away in a few weeks or months. I clung to that bit of denial, I guess, because it helped ease the fear and sadness as reality sank in. Brian was only 3, and deep down my husband and I knew we were facing a serious chronic disease that would probably hang on for years, maybe even for the rest of his life.

It did hang on, and three years later, our younger son, Eric, also started to wake up at night with fits of coughing, wheezing, and choking. Both boys had a cluster of problems — asthma, eczema, and allergies to nuts, pollens, dust mites, and animals — that often go together and seem to have become more common in the past 20 years or so.

People with asthma are often described as having "twitchy" lungs, hypersensitive to all kinds of irritants that don't bother others. The disease causes the airways to constrict temporarily and fill up with mucus, making it hard to breathe. Lots of things can trigger attacks: allergies, viruses, cigarette smoke, gas fumes, cold air, exercise, even laughing.

At least six million children in the United States have asthma. Worldwide, it affects about 300 million adults and children; 255,000 die from it each year, and deaths could increase by 20 percent over the next decade, reports the World Health Organization.

In this country, asthma rates in children climbed about 60 percent between 1980 and 2003, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In kids under 5, the rates rose even more, jumping 160 percent from 1980 to 1994.

Our sons, born in 1984 and 1987, were part of this dismal trend; a surprising number of our friends and neighbors had children in the same boat. We didn't remember there being so many kids with asthma when we were young. Everything from air pollutants to obesity has been blamed for the surge, but researchers have yet to arrive at definitive explanations.

My husband and I realized that we had two jobs: keeping our boys well and teaching them to take care of themselves when they were off with friends or at school and we weren't around to remind them to use their inhalers.

We also felt we had to walk a fine line. We wanted our sons to be cautious but not afraid, to take asthma seriously and yet not become obsessive or hypochondriacal. We didn't want them to be like the goofy neighbor kid who squirted his inhaler at classmates for laughs — or like the one whose parents kept him home at the first sign of a cough. We weren't really sure how to find a happy medium, except to be calm but insistent about doing what was needed to keep the disease under control.

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