Understanding Asthma Part 2: Treatment
A mom wrinkles her brow and hands me a bulging bag of inhalers. “Which medicine is the ‘quick fix’ inhaler? And which medicine is the ‘controller’ inhaler?” she asks.
Perfecting a treatment regimen for a child with asthma initially can be tricky and confusing for parents. But don’t panic. There are simple medication schedules and environmental changes which not only thwart asthma flare ups, but also keep lungs calm between episodes. The goal is to abolish all symptoms of asthma. Here are some commonly used measures used in non-hospitalized patients:
For asthma flares
Albuterol (brand names Proair, Proventil, Ventolin). When inhaled, this medicine works directly on the lungs by opening up the millions of tiny airways constricted during an attack. Albuterol is given via nebulizer or inhaler. A nebulizer machine areosolizes albuterol and pipes a mist of medicine into a child’s lungs through a mask or mouth piece.
For kids who use inhalers, we provide a spacer, a clear plastic tube about the size of a toilet paper tube which suspends the medication and gives the child time to slowly breathe in the medication. Without a spacer, the administration technique can be tricky and even adults use inhalers incorrectly. Albuterol in a drinkable form does exist but is less effective and has more side effects.
Prednisone (brand names include Prelone, Prednisolone, Orapred): Given orally in the form of pills or liquid, this steroid medicine acts to decrease inflammation inside the lungs. The kind of steroid given is not the same kind used illegally in athletics. While steroids in the short term can cause side effects such as belly pain and behavior changes, if needed, the advantages of improving breathing greatly outweigh these temporary and reversable side effects. However, if your child has received a couple rounds of steroids in the past year, talk to your pediatrician about preventative measures to avoid the long term side effects of continual steroid use.
Quick environmental changes One winter a few years ago, a new live Christmas tree triggered an asthma attack in my patient. The only way he felt comfortable breathing in his own home was for the family to get rid of the dusty tree. Smoke and perfume can also spasm lungs. If you know Aunt Mildred smells like a flower factory, run away from her suffocating hug. Kids should avoid smoking and avoid being around others who smoke.
For asthma prevention
Taking preventative, or controller medicines for asthma is like taking a vitamin. They are not “quick fixes” but they can calm lungs and prevent asthma symptoms when used over time.
Inhaled steroids (brand names Flovent or Pulmicort, for example) work directly on lungs and do not cause the side effects of oral steroids because they are not absorbed into the rest of the body. These medicines work over time to stop mucus buildup inside the lungs so that the lungs are not as sensitive to triggers such as cold viruses.
Monteleukoclast (brand name Singulair) also used to treat nasal allergies, limits the number and severity of asthma attacks as well by decreasing inflammation at a different point than steroids. It comes as a tiny pill kids chew or swallow daily.
Avoid allergy triggers (see our allergy post ) and respiratory irritants such as smoke. Even if you smoke a cigarette outside, smoke clings to clothing and your child can be affected.
Treat acid reflux appropriately. Sometimes asthma is triggered by reflux, or heartburn. If stomach acid refluxes back up into the food pipe (esophagus), that acid could tickle your child’s airways which lie next to the esophagus.
Avoid Respiratory Viruses and the flu. Teach your child good hand washing techniques and get yearly flu shots. Parents should schedule their children’s flu vaccines as soon as the vaccines are availiable.
Use Peak flow meters. Peak flow meters are small, hand-held devices that measure how well your child’s lungs are functioning and can detect an impending asthma flair before the cough or symptoms are obvious. The child blows as hard as he can into the small plastic air chamber and gets a number score. Baseline scores depend mostly on a child’s height, and the meters come with charts to guide what your child’s best score on a good day should be. The child tracks his scores daily until his baseline is well established. Then, if the child starts with a runny nose, he begins using his peak flow meter. If the number drops from baseline, treatment medicine (albuterol) is started. An asthma attack may be prevented because the attack is treated before symptoms get bad.
Some parents are familiar with asthma because they grew up with the condition themselves, but these parents should know that health care providers treat asthma in kids differently than in adults. For example, asthma is one of the few examples where medicine such as albuterol can be dosed higher in young children than in adults. Also some treatment guidelines have been improved upon recently and may differ from how parents recall their own asthma was managed as children. A doctor friend now in his 50’s said his parent used to give him a substance to induce vomiting. After vomiting, the adrenaline rush would open up his airways.
Don’t do that. We can do better so that both you and your child can breathe easy about asthma.
Julie Kardos, MD with Naline Lai, MD
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