Asthma and spring allergies
Q: My son has asthma. What can we do to keep his symptoms under control during spring allergy season?
A: Asthma affects 1 out of every 14 children in Minnesota. This inflammatory process causes airways in the lungs to swell, trapping mucus and triggering the muscles surrounding the airways to spasm, resulting in breathing problems such as shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing. Though these problems are reversible with recognition and treatment, allergy season can make them more challenging.
Spring hosts many common allergens that can trigger asthma symptoms, such as pollen and higher mold spore counts. An allergy to these triggers won’t cause a child to develop asthma. But asthmatic children with allergies can experience worsening asthma symptoms when exposed to allergy triggers, which can irritate the lungs and make it difficult to keep asthma under control.
What you can do
- The best way to combat this issue is to avoid triggers. If pollen and mold are a problem for your child, watch the forecast for pollen and mold counts and limit your child’s activities on peak trigger days.
- Rather than opening the windows to cool your home on warm days, use air conditioning. This is especially important on days with high pollen and mold counts. Air conditioning can clean, cool and dry the air inside your home, making it easier for children with asthma to breathe normally. If you must open the windows, avoid doing so between 5–10 a.m. when these counts are highest.
- If grass triggers your child’s asthma, don’t allow her to mow the lawn or play near freshly cut grass.
- After playing outside, children with allergies should shower and change clothes. Avoid hang-drying clothing and bed sheets and instead use a dryer, as it can limit the pollen and mold spores that collect on these surfaces.
- Exposure to triggers can be minimized, but can’t always be avoided. Allergy-relieving medications are important for controlling asthma symptoms.
- Asthmatic children should continue taking long-term controller medicines when they feel well, as they are designed to decrease inflammation and stabilize airway muscles. When children are exposed to triggers, their asthma symptoms may suddenly worsen. This is called an asthma exacerbation or “asthma attack.” In case this occurs, your child should always have quick-relief, rescue medicine available to immediately minimize the airway muscle spasm.
When to talk to a doctor
Sudden or gradual exposure to triggers can cause an asthma attack, especially if your child’s asthma or allergies aren’t well controlled. Signs of inadequately controlled allergies include throat clearing, nasal congestion or irritated/itchy eyes. Signs of an asthma attack include coughing that may prevent sleep, rapid or irregular breathing, chest tightness and wheezing.
Seek medical attention immediately if your child exhibits signs of an asthma attack with trouble breathing, pausing while speaking, fatigue or if the areas around the ribs or neck sink in with each breath.
Asthma exacerbations/attacks can be life threatening and may require medical intervention.
If your child frequently experiences asthma symptoms while taking long-term control medication and hasn’t had allergy testing, ask your doctor if allergies could be worsening his or her asthma symptoms.
Your doctor may perform allergy testing or refer your child to an allergist to evaluate whether allergies are making the asthma worse. Your doctor may also prescribe allergy medication or allergy shots if the triggers are unavoidable or severe.
After identifying new triggers, your doctor can update your child’s asthma action plan to list additional triggers — and interventions to manage symptoms.
For more information on the asthma program at Children’s Minnesota, go to tinyurl.com/mn-asthma.
Dr. Gigi Chawla is a board-certified pediatrician and the chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Minnesota.