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posted: 4/14/2014 12:45 PM

Experts see incidents of asthma, allergies increasing

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  • Lurie Children's pediatric asthma specialist Dr. Anne Singh examines patient Michael Pimentel, 14, of Lansing, Ill.

      Lurie Children's pediatric asthma specialist Dr. Anne Singh examines patient Michael Pimentel, 14, of Lansing, Ill.
    Courtesy of Janice Terry

 

You wanted to know

"Why does asthma happen?" asked fifth-graders in Elise Diaz and Caroline Dicentio's classes at Prairie Trail School in Wadsworth.

If you have difficulty breathing, chest tightness or you cough when exercising, you could have asthma.

Asthma, from the Greek word for panting, is the result of an overactive immune system. Airways become inflamed, they tighten, and breathing becomes difficult. Wheezing can be a sign.

"Children who have asthma have trouble breathing out in situations when they shouldn't be having trouble," said Dr. Anne Singh, pediatric asthma specialist and allergist at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

Typically, people with asthma also have allergies, Dr. Singh said. The condition affects more boys than girls and more women than men.

Patients with mild asthma might have trouble keeping up in sports because of breathing difficulties -- they wheeze or breathe harder and are trying to move air in and out in a tight space.

When you wake up coughing in the middle of the night, particularly between midnight and 6 a.m., asthma is the likely diagnosis.

"Asthma is called recurrent and reversible airway obstruction," Dr. Singh said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 12 people in the U.S. have asthma.

"The incidence of asthma has been increasing along with all allergic disorders," Dr. Singh said.

Experts believe early life exposure to allergens such as dust or pollen, maybe even exposure before birth, could be a reason why so many people have the disease. Cold air, infection and exercise can be triggers.

"Many people have it, but how or why they have it is very different for everyone," Dr. Singh said.

Kids with parents who have asthma or allergies are more likely to develop the disease. It can be the result of pet exposure, viral or bacterial illnesses, environmental exposure to pollutants or allergens.

As for the long-term effects, the future is uncertain, Dr. Singh said.

"Once you have a diagnosis of asthma, some people will grow out of it; some, unfortunately, become more prone to attacks," she said.

What do you do when you feel an episode coming on?

"Take a break and relax. Call the pediatrician," she said. "If breathing is so hard you can't walk or talk, or you are breathing really fast and taking lots of shallow breaths over and over again, call for emergency care."

Dr. Singh is researching ways to help asthma and allergy patients. She examines factors such as birth order and genetics to try to unlock the mysteries of the disease.

"It is really exciting to be working toward understanding what's happening. Once we understand, we can work on cures," she said.

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