Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease in which the airways become sensitive to allergens (any substance that triggers an allergic reaction). Several things happen to the airways when a child is exposed to certain triggers:
- The lining of the airways become swollen and inflamed
- The muscles that surround the airways tighten
- The production of mucus in increased, leading to mucus plugs
All of these factors will cause the airways to narrow, thus making it difficult for air to go in and out of your child's lungs, causing the symptoms of asthma.
These "triggers" can be viral-respiratory illnesses ("colds"); exercise; exposure to certain odors, such as paint or perfume; allergic responses to certain things, such as pollen or cats; stress; tobacco smoke or weather extremes.
Asthma is the leading cause of chronic illness in children. It currently affects as many as 10-12 percent of children in the U.S., and it is becoming increasingly common. It can begin at any age, but most children have their first symptoms by 5 years of age.
There are many predisposing factors for the development of childhood asthma. These include:
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Presence of allergies
- Family history of asthma and/or allergies
- Low birth weight
- Exposure to tobacco smoke before and/or after birth
"Asthma is the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States,” says Robert Miller, MD, pediatric pulmonologist with Lehigh Valley Health Network. “It is estimated that there are approximately five million children in this country with asthma. Untreated asthma is the most common chronic disease causing school absences.
“The financial and emotional impact of untreated asthma is great. Obesity, depression, poor self-esteem, poor school performance and family stress all can result from untreated asthma.”