A lot people have this dated, 1970-s era image of ‘asthma kids’: you know, the sallow, weedy kid with Coke-bottle specs who sat on the sidelines during gym class.
Scratch that image and replace it with one of David Beckham, instead. The international football star has had asthma his whole life. He’s even been photographed sucking on an inhaler during high-profile soccer matches – then getting back into the game. Or what about Singapore runner Shafiq Kashmiri, who nailed the 100-metre dash in 10.98 seconds? He was an ‘asthma kid’ too.
Asthma should not keep your kids on the sidelines. In fact, this is even more reason to get them into the game, says Dr Kenneth Chan, a specialist at Respiratory Medical Associates at Gleneagles Hospital. Strong, healthy lungs are a child’s best defence against the disease. “There’s no reason that children with asthma can’t live a normal, active life,” says Dr Chan.
Your child is more likely to develop asthma if he or she suffers from allergic rhinitis or eczema, or if your family has a history of asthma, Dr Chan shared at an allergy seminar co-organised in October this year by local allergy blog sneezywheezy.com and the Asthma and Allergy Association in Singapore.
If you smoke, your child is more likely to develop asthma. Adults can also develop asthma after a viral infection. “I see a lot of adult patients who develop asthma, and they say ‘Now? In my thirties? I never had asthma as a child’. They probably had a gene, and after a viral infection that gene was activated,” Dr Chan explains. “But if you’re coughing for a couple of months, it could be bronchial asthma.”
What Triggers Asthma?
Asthma attacks can be triggered by colds and viruses, air pollution, house dust mites, weather, exercise or even food. Asthmatics are often allergic to certain foods, like milk, eggs or shellfish, and an allergic reaction to these can trigger an asthma attack too.
But just because you have asthma doesn’t mean you should avoid certain foods. Get a skin prick test done to find out if you have a genuine allergy, advises Dr Chan. Cutting out foods without good reason puts nutrition at risk.
Emotions figure into all this, too. Certain drugs, like aspirin or beta blockers used to control high blood pressure can make asthma worse. Stress is a very common cause of asthma attacks, proving that lifestyle and emotional issues can trigger physical illness, says Dr Chan.
House dust mite allergies are also responsible for a lot of asthmatic attacks. Find out if you are allergic to them, and get rid of stuffed toys and bedding that can harbour mites. Use a good vacuum cleaner, and get rid of carpets. If your child is attached to a cuddly or soft toy, wash regularly in hot water or freeze it: extreme temperatures will kill off the mites.
Another tip from Dr Chan: eat lots of fruits and veggies. Vitamins C and E may protect against asthma by reducing the severity of inflammation associated with the condition. “Eating well also helps prevent colds and flu, which can trigger asthma,” he says.
Keeping Active With Asthma
The bad news is that there is no cure for asthma. The good news is that it can be controlled with prevention medications. Keeping fit definitely helps. Just look at Beckham! Dr Chan recommends that you do 30 minutes of exercise, three to five time a week – work hard enough to make yourself breathless, he says.
But remember to keep medications handy in case the exercise triggers an attack, and don’t be afraid to take a preventative puff from your inhaler before getting into the game.
Asthma does not get in the way of exercise for Jessica Oh, a 16-year-old asthmatic. “It is safe to exercise but don’t over exert yourself,” her mother Dr Helen Oh says. “My daughter routinely takes two Ventolin puffs before she begins her exercise, for example, jogging. This enables her to exercise without triggering an attack.”
Dr Chan offers this advice for those wanting to incorporate more exercise into their lifestyle: “Choosing swimming as a form of exercise can really help. In addition to being very easy on the joints, the air around a swimming pool tends to be humid and hence, easier for an asthmatic with sensitive airways.”
Best of all, your child can continue to aim for the sky in the sporting arena even if he has asthma. Says asthma specialist Dr Augustine Tee of Changi General Hospital, “I advise young people not to restrict their sporting lifestyle because of asthma, but rather to know the disease well, especially their own personal triggers including the intensity of exercise that will trigger an attack. Once adequate asthma control is achieved with trigger avoidance and medication, even Olympic aspirations are achievable!”
Just remember: standard pre-exercise inhaler use is advised whenever strenuous exercise is likely, he cautions.
Vicky Henniker-Anandraj is the editor of www.sneezywheezy.com, Singapore’s only allergy blog.