The winter months can be stressful for children with asthma, as well as for their families. Kids with asthma have lungs that react to certain triggers, causing their airways to tighten. Cold air and respiratory viruses are two frequent causes of asthma problems in winter. There are ways to keep your child healthier and safer during this troublesome time of the year.
The success of any effective asthma management plan is based on key factors including regular asthma care with your asthma healthcare provider, control of factors that may affect asthma, long-term management with controller medications and knowing what to do when asthma becomes a problem.
Take Preventative Asthma Medications
Many children with asthma are required to take daily medications to keep the inflammation in their lungs controlled. Kids with asthma are prescribed preventative medications for two important reasons: to keep them safe with the goal of preventing a serious asthma attack and to decrease the chance of permanent damage occurring in the lungs from untreated asthma. The most common group of medications is inhaled corticosteroids, which are usually given by an aerosolized inhaler (puffer) or dry powder inhaler. Montelukast is another asthma medication some children take that is given in a pill or granule form.
Your child’s asthma provider should work with you to come up with the right treatment plan. Many families do not realize that preventative medications can take several days to a couple of weeks after your child starts taking them to be helpful. For this reason, regular use of controller medicines is important. Using controller medications only when your child is having flare-ups may not be helpful.
Minimize the Chance of Illness
Encourage frequent hand washing, Germs causing respiratory illnesses may be picked up from any surface touched by other people. Common places to pick up germs are door handles, light switches, cellphones and desks. Germs can enter our bodies via our hands when we touch our eyes or mouth. The germs then travel to the nose where they cause illness.
Most of us touch our mouth or eyes more frequently then we realize. Ridding hands of germs by washing regularly with soap and water for 20 seconds is one of the best ways to prevent colds and the flu. Use of alcohol-based antiseptics is helpful when no soap and water are available.
Use a tissue to cover your cough. If a tissue is not available, sneeze or cough into your upper sleeve or elbow. Germs mixed in water droplets are released into the air when infected people sneeze or cough. Germs can also be present on hands when ill people use their hands to cover their mouths. Teach your family members to cover their mouths and noses with a tissue when they cough or sneeze.
Clean and disinfect surfaces touched frequently at home, school or work, especially when people are ill. Place used tissues immediately into the trash. Do not share food or drinks with others, and avoid close contact with people who are known to be ill.
Protect Your Child With the Flu Vaccine
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most children six months and older receive the flu vaccine every year. This is especially important for kids with asthma. Although children are often scared of getting shots, the flu vaccine helps to decrease the risk of influenza, which can be a serious illness for kids with asthma.
Protect Your Child With the Flu Vaccine
Smoke is a known irritant to lungs. This not only includes cigarette smoke, but smoke from wood-burning fireplaces. If you must burn wood in your home for heat, keep your child as far away from the fireplace as possible. Also, if adults must smoke, they should only smoke outside the home. Smoking in a different room from the child, in a room with open windows or in the bathroom with an exhaust fan are not safe options for protecting your child from cigarette smoke.
Take Precautions During Exercise or Play
Breathing in cold air does not cause colds or the flu, but it can cause the lungs to spasm or tighten in kids with asthma. Cold air is also dry. Drier air can be another trigger for asthma symptoms. There are several steps that can help protect lungs from cold air.
Nose breathing can warm the temperature of the air before reaching the lungs. Encourage older kids to breathe through their noses rather than through their mouths when outdoors. Covering the mouth with a mask or scarf when outdoors is another way to warm and humidify air.
During extremely cold weather, it may be necessary to avoid playing or exercising outdoors. There is not a set temperature that is too cold for children with asthma. If your child must play or exercise outdoors, choosing a time later in the afternoon when the temperature is warmer may be helpful. Warming up for 20 to 30 minutes indoors before exercising in the cold weather may also help decrease the chance of asthma symptoms from cold air.
Make Your Home an Asthma-Safe Zone
Replace your furnace filters before turning on the heater for the first time. Furnace filters collect dust that can trigger asthma symptoms when the furnace is running. Inspect and change the filters regularly during the winter months. Keeping the temperature and humidity of your home consistent will also be helpful to prevent issues with winter asthma problems.
Have a Written Asthma Action Plan
Ask your asthma provider for a written asthma action plan individualized for your child. It is important that your child’s school nurse, teacher or daycare provider has a copy of the plan so the proper steps can be taken if there is asthma trouble while in school or at daycare. The asthma action plan should include:
* What to do on a daily basis when asthma is controlled.
* Steps to take when your child is having asthma symptoms.
* What to do in an emergency.
* A list of triggers for your child’s asthma.
Communicate With School and Daycare Providers
Many children spend quite a bit of time during the day away from parents. This is especially true for school-age children. Asthma symptoms also may be more frequent at school or daycare than at home because of gym class, recess and the presence of other children. Everyone who cares for your child is a member of the team who keeps your child safe from asthma. Communicating regularly with the teacher, school nurse or daycare provider may help identify kids whose asthma is not as well controlled as it appears to be at home.
Dealing with your child’s asthma in the winter can be stressful for you as a parent. However, taking the steps stated above that are within your control can make it easier for your child with asthma.
Deb Hickman, DNP, APRN-CNP, CPNP-PC, NNP-BC, is a PNP at Sanford Children’s Speciality Clinic, caring for children with asthma and other respiratory problems. She is co-chair of NAPNAP’s Asthma and Allergy special interest group.