Debunking the Childhood Asthma Myths
I’m overly fond of statistics when it comes to asthma, partly because my own experiences with my kid don’t mean much outside the larger context. But in all the data I post, the numbers that catch my attention most are the ones on patient/parent asthma knowledge and uncontrolled asthma in children.
We all know education is key to understanding and treating asthma, right? But we also all know the Internet can hurt as much as it helps. Lots of misinformation circulates, that’s no surprise. It’s shockingly easy to stumble upon pages for “asthma cures” or parent messageboards full of posters expecting their kids to “grow out” of asthma. It’s natural to hope for that, and I used to when AG was younger, too. Asthma is such a complex condition with a dizzying array of symptoms and it’s monstrously difficult to get under control in little kids sometimes. Plus, it’s freaking scary to imagine your child living with an incurable condition for the rest of her life, even if asthma is one of the most treatable chronic conditions around and even if your child has one of the milder cases.
But coming to terms with childhood asthma, understanding its true nature, and not perpetuating any assumptions about its departure can save months and even years of undertreatment and worry. That’s what they tell me, anyway, because I certainly bought into some of the hopeful myths when AG was little and flaring all the time.
In the spirit of asthma education and puncturing the balloon of faulty information, then, let’s talk about some of the more common childhood asthma myths.
MYTH: Kids outgrow asthma.
Asthma has a physiological component and involves the immune system, not just the lungs. A child with a hyper-reactive immune response will always have that tendency. There is no cure. It is true that lots of children (though not all) flare less frequently and use their inhalers less often as they get older, but true asthmatics will always remain susceptible to flares. It’s also true that childhood asthma often improves around the time puberty sets in, only to worsen again as those kids reach their mid-20’s. For most people, though, child-onset asthma is much worse during the younger years than any other time.
Some temporary conditions, like respiratory syntactical virus (RSV), carry long-term effects that mimic asthma for a few years before disappearing forever. True asthma never disappears.
MYTH: Yoga/The Buteyko Method/Swimming/Herbs/Etc. will cure asthma.
Even conventional asthma medicine only treats the symptoms of asthma – the bronchospasms, lung inflammation, and the flare-inducing allergic response. No existing method, medicine, or exercise in traditional or complementary medicine can turn off that switch responsible for excess inflammation. Having said that, various medical and non-medical treatments and overall good health can improve quality of life for asthmatics. Yoga, for example, may help train lungs into healthier breathing patterns, and I firmly believe swimming from a very young age (though not in indoor pools) helped my daughter. But reduction in symptoms is not a cure.
MYTH: Treating children flare-by-flare is healthier than making them take preventative steroids.
For persistent asthma, the benefits of inhaled corticosteroids more than outweigh the (minimal) risks. Children not on maintenance meds run the risk of perpetual lung inflammation and under-treated flares. Possible long-term side effects of those? Pulmonary scar tissue build-up that keeps bronchodilators from working properly when those kids are adults, airway remodeling, and more severe asthma that lasts a lifetime.
MYTH: Letting kids with asthma “work through” flares on their own without medication will teach their lungs to overcome them naturally.
No. Just no.
The body cannot “learn” not to have asthma, and denying a child emergency meds constitutes neglect in my book. An untreated asthmatic child who’s never ended up in respiratory distress is lucky, not improved. The worst scenario bears repeating: frequent, un/under-treated flares and lung inflammation can make a child’s case of asthma much worse, forever.
MYTH: A child that doesn’t wheeze can’t possibly have asthma.
Coughing, not wheezing, is the number-one asthma symptom. My 9 year-old asthmatic racked up pages and pages of doctor and hospital records when she was younger. She’s been on oral meds, a nebulizer, or an inhaler since she was 10 months-old and been hospitalized for her breathing problems. I’ve never heard her wheeze. Not once.
MYTH: Children with asthma can’t play sports or run around very much.
Asthma kids can do anything they want, as long as they’re being treated for their symptoms.
Got any asthma myths of your own to debunk?
The information in this post stems from too much reading over the years to list here. Check the left sidebar for Asthma Resources like the American Lung Association, where you can learn more.