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August 6, 2007

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

Back-to-school season can be tough on kids with asthma, University of Michigan expert says

About 6 to 8 percent of school-age children have asthma, says pediatric allergy specialist

ANN ARBOR, MI – Back-to-school time is always tough for 11-year-old Mark Janiga – not just because he leaves behind the fun of summer vacation, but also because it’s the time of year when his asthma starts to get worse.


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“The start of the school year is kind of my bad season,” says Janiga, who is treated for asthma at the University of Michigan Health System. “All the leaves fall down, and the pollen starts to grow and makes me congested.”

Like many of the 9 million children in this country who have asthma, Janiga needs more than just pencils and notepads when he returns to the classroom each fall. He requires easy access to his inhaler and other medications, and the awareness of his teacher and school officials about his condition.

“Parents need to make sure the school has some sort of mechanism to get asthma medications to their child, whether they carry their own inhaler or rescue medicine, or if they have it in the nurse’s office where the student can get it,” says Andrew Singer, M.D., clinical instructor in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Allergy and Immunology and in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the University of Michigan Medical School.

The start of the school year coincides with one of the worst allergy seasons, Singer notes, when asthma attacks can be triggered by pollen or ragweed. Adding to the problem, he says, viruses such as the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, tend to spread around schools during the first few weeks of the year.

“That can exacerbate the impact of a child’s asthma and set them up for hospitalizations, emergency room visits or the need for more medications,” he says.

As more children develop asthma, the impact on their academic lives also is increasing. Singer notes that some 14 million school days are lost each year because of asthma.

Typically, asthma in children and adults is associated with allergies such as hay fever (allergic rhinitis), reactions to dogs or cats, food allergies, or second-hand smoke, he says. Other triggers can include exercise, stress and sudden changes in temperature.

Asthma occurs when there is an inflammation in the airwaves, which causes reversible episodes of wheezing or coughing. Asthma attacks (also known as asthma episodes) can be mild, or they can be so severe that they are fatal.

Health Minute ImageLong-term medications can be used to help prevent asthma attacks, and they are available as pill and inhaled medications. Rescue medications – known as bronchodilators – act quickly to help the airways open up during an asthma attack.

While asthma can have an impact on one’s quality of life, Mark Janiga and his family aren’t willing to let him miss out on activities at school. “I just feel that a child with asthma can do anything they want to, as long as they have the right medication and the right maintenance control,” says Mark’s mother, Joanne Janiga.

Mark Janiga puts it another way: “My asthma won’t stop me from playing.”

Kids, asthma and school: Information from and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  1. Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, with about 14 million school days lost each year due to the condition.
  2. Low-income populations, minorities and children in inner cities experience more hospitalizations and death related to asthma.
  3. The child’s teacher and school nurse should know the medications the student takes and the dosages, the student’s asthma triggers, and how to recognize the early symptoms of a flare-up.
  4. Parents may want to request that the school make changes to decrease the child’s exposure to triggers, such as using dust-free chalk or dry-erase boards, and avoiding perfumed cleaning products and soaps.
  5. With proper management of children’s asthma, most can fully participate in school activities, including games at recess and sports during gym class.

For more information, visit these Web sites:
UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Asthma

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: What is asthma?

American Lung Association: Controlling your child’s asthma

American Lung Association: Asthma medications for kids

Written by Katie Gazella


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