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Asthma Takes Your Breath Away

By Lisa E. Stafford
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 13, 1998 – Americans who occasionally cough, wheeze or suffer shortness of breath are invited to take part in a nationwide asthma screening program in May.

The screening program will be performed at shopping malls, civic centers, health fairs and other accessible locations. Even though screenings will not take place at DoD facilities, service members and their families are free to take advantage of the program.

Allergists, respiratory therapists and patient support organizations are volunteering their time for the free asthma screening program. Adults and children who are experiencing breathing problems can take a special breathing assessment called a spirometry test and answer questions from a Life Quality Test.

Based on the screening results, participants will be counseled on whether they should seek a thorough examination and diagnosis. Current asthma sufferers can also talk with a specialist about controlling their asthma.

"We believe the nationwide screenings help raise awareness about asthma and the fact that the disease doesn't have to lead to major lifestyle compromises," said Susan Rudd Wynn, chair of the screening program task force. "By informing people about the symptoms of asthma and by offering free screenings and consultation by an allergist, we can help improve quality of life for children and adults with asthma."

More than 3,000 adults and children at 100 sites participated in the 1997 program, the first sponsored by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Nationally 14 million to 15 million people have asthma, and many don't realize it, said Dr. Ira Finegold, president of the college.

Asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness and affects 4.8 million U.S. children. The disease is an inflammation and narrowing of the air passages to the lungs that causes wheezing and difficulty in breathing. Infections, allergens and environmental irritants such as dust or tobacco smoke can trigger asthma attacks.

Every year more than 5,000 people die from asthma. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the death rate among young asthmatics more than doubled between 1980 and 1993, the most recent year for which figures are available. The death rate among individuals from birth to age 24 increased 118 percent from 1.7 deaths per million to 3.7 deaths per million since 1980. Among the increase in death rates, the highest recorded was in the African-American population aged 15 to 24 -- 129 percent -- from 8.2 deaths per million in 1980 to 18.8 deaths per million in 1993.

African-Americans also suffer the highest asthma rate, according to statistics. From birth to age 4 and from the ages 15 to 24, they are six times more likely to die of asthma than white Americans. Between ages 5 to 14 they are four times more likely to die.

"This is [the result of] a combination of inadequate access to health care, contact with dust mites, psychosocial problems, air pollution and other factors that exacerbate asthma symptoms," said Finegold.

"It is essential that children with asthma have access to the kinds of medical specialists who understand the disease and can help them control it," he said. "Untreated asthma poses a much greater risk than over-treated asthma." When their asthma is under control, patients can live a largely normal life, he said, but if asthma is left uncontrolled, the goal often becomes keeping the patient alive and out of the emergency room.

According to new government statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the annual hospitalization rate for asthma among all individuals from birth to age 24 has increased 28 percent since 1980.

An important factor in preventing or reducing attacks is avoiding common household allergens such as plant pollen, molds, cockroaches, animal dander, industrial chemicals, foods, medicines, feathers, insect venom, and household dust that carries mites.

It is also important to cover allergen reservoirs such as mattresses and pillows with impermeable covers wherever possible. Mattresses, pillows, carpets and upholstered furniture act both as a nest for mites and cockroaches and as a major site where allergens accumulate. However, allergens can also build up on polished floors, leather sofas and wooden furniture. Humidity, temperature and ventilation can also contribute to home asthma problems.

If you or your child has asthma or even if you have occasional problems taking a deep breath, this simple test from the asthma institute may help improve your quality of life. Answer the following 20 questions yes or no, then decide whether you should see a doctor for the first time or make a return visit:

  • When I walk or do simple chores, I have trouble breathing or I cough.
  • When I perform heavier work, such as walking up hills and stairs or doing chores that involve lifting, I have trouble breathing or I cough.
  • Sometimes I avoid exercising or taking part in sports like jogging, swimming, tennis or aerobics because I have trouble breathing or I cough.
  • I have been unable to sleep through the night without coughing attacks or shortness of breath.
  • Sometimes I can't catch a good, deep breath.
  • Sometimes I make wheezing sounds in my chest.
  • Sometimes my chest feels tight.
  • Sometimes I cough a lot.
  • Dust, pollen and pets make my asthma worse.
  • My asthma gets worse in cold weather.
  • My asthma gets worse and worse when I'm around tobacco smoke, fumes or strong odors.
  • When I catch a cold, it often goes to my chest.
  • I made one or more emergency visits due to asthma or breathing problems in the last year.
  • I had one or more overnight hospitalizations due to asthma or breathing problems in the last year.
  • I feel like I use my asthma inhaler too often.
  • Sometimes I don't like the way my asthma medicine(s) make me feel.
  • My asthma medicine doesn't control my asthma.
  • My breathing problem or asthma controls my life more than I would like.
  • I feel tension or stress because of my breathing problem or asthma.
  • I worry that my breathing problem or asthma affects my health or may even shorten my life.

For more information on allergies and asthma or to get a listing of a board-certified allergists in your area, call (800) 842-7777 or contact your military health care representative.

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