Protecting Kids from Environmental Asthma

Armen Hareyan's picture

Despite improvements in air quality in the United States, asthma and allergy attacks in children are on the rise. Some experts suspect this may be due in part to kids spending more time indoors, where they're exposed to more allergens, proteins that trigger inflammatory responses.

David Schwartz, M.D., professor of pulmonary medicine and genetics at Duke University Medical Center, says a big problem today is the quality of indoor air, particularly in homes with poor ventilation systems.

"It actually may be a false impression that air quality has improved," explains Schwartz. "Some of the visible pollution has clearly improved, but what's occurred is that the type of agent we're now exposed to in the air has dramatically changed. As a result of ventilation systems, we're being exposed to air that's contaminated with microbial bacteria, molds, viruses and toxins of these organisms."

Schwartz points to carpeting and pets as two of the primary sources of indoor irritants that can affect children.

"Carpeting is a problem because of the organisms that live in the carpet. Children can develop allergic reactions to the mites that live in the carpet. These mites also produce fecal droppings that contaminate the air with bacteria and bacterial products that can cause inflammation in the airways. Pets are another source of many allergic responses, as well as bacterial contamination. In both contexts, being around pets can result in responses that cause asthma."


Schwartz says parents can help protect their children by reducing these and other environmental risks in the home.

"Keep children away from cigarette smoke and gasses, especially cooking gasses, and recognize when a child develops an allergic response. Early recognition is the most important thing."

He urges parents to be watchful for possible early warning signs of asthma, like a chronic runny nose, sore throat or itchy eyes. "Children who are treated earlier will have a less aggressive type of asthma," he says. "Once asthma gets established, it's very difficult to treat. Asthma in its early phases is much easier to treat and in fact can be reversible."

Schwartz says the most common treatment for asthma and allergy attacks is the use of inhalers, which deliver localized treatment to the lungs. Medications in the inhalers can increase the caliber of the airway and decrease resistance in the airway. In cases of allergic asthma that cannot be easily controlled by medications delivered via inhalers, allergy desensitization shots can also provide help.


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