Learning to Live with Asthma
We were fortunate to find our way to pediatricians who were good teachers,
and we learned a number of things from them that turned out to be important for
the long haul.
My first lesson came when I mentioned that I knew parents who seemed to rush
to the emergency room an awful lot because of their child's asthma attacks. Our
normally mild-mannered pediatrician became irate and insisted there should be
no need for emergency treatment — not if the asthma was being managed properly.
His indignation made an impression on me. So did the idea that if we kept our
wits about us, it might be possible to avoid trips to the emergency room.
I paid attention when he explained that even though our sons' asthma attacks
occurred mainly at night, it would take several doses of medicine during the
day, every day — even when they were feeling fine — to prevent the attacks.
Initially, I found that hard to accept. Why couldn't they just take medicine at
bedtime to get them through the night? I soon found out it wasn't enough. Like
most parents, I hated the idea of giving my children drugs day after day, with
no end in sight. Although there didn't seem to be immediate side effects, I
wondered if problems might develop later, perhaps ones that hadn't even been
But we didn't really have a choice. Without the drugs, our sons had asthma
attacks nearly every night. We followed all the crazy-making advice about
buying special dust-mite-proof covers for mattresses and pillows, banishing
pets, and getting rid of carpets and stuffed toys to keep dust away. But the
only thing that clearly made a difference was asthma medicine.
There are two main classes of drugs. One is used only to prevent attacks,
and works by treating the underlying cause of asthma, which is thought to be
inflammation in the airways. Several medicines ease inflammation, including
steroids related to cortisone and other drugs that act on the immune
Rescue medicines, or bronchodilators, are used to treat attacks in progress,
or to help keep attacks at bay during colds or other respiratory infections.
They work by relaxing muscles in the airways that go into spasm and make it
hard to breathe. Albuterol, also called Ventolin, is a commonly used
Guided by our doctors, we used various preventive drugs as the backbone of
treatment. Most of the time, we used albuterol only to treat attacks. And if
our sons needed it more than occasionally, we took that as a sign that they
also needed more of the inflammation-fighting drugs.
Viral infections, sinus problems, and allergies seemed to bring on attacks.
We also found out, the hard way, that the flu can play havoc with asthma, and
at a pediatrician's urging, we all started getting flu shots every year when
the boys were in elementary school. It was one of the best decisions we ever