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Asthma should be taken seriously, treated
Health advice
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Many of you already know about the death of Jarvis Williams, a former defensive back for the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. Williams died last Tuesday night in north Florida at age 45. The medical examiner confirmed that the cause of death was from an acute asthma attack.
Since his retirement, Williams volunteered as a coach at Interlachen High School in Putnam County, Fla. Principal Phyllis Criswell said he was in good shape and perfectly healthy at practice Tuesday afternoon.
Many Americans experience respiratory distress from pollen in the spring or from complications of inhaled smoke or other triggers such as exercise-induced asthma. The number of children with asthma has reached epidemic proportions in preschool children (160 percent increase) and has increased 75 percent in school-aged children. Seven percent of all U.S. children have asthma and the number of deaths related to asthma in children has nearly tripled during the past 15 years.
Although the death rate has increased in all racial and ethnic groups, African Americans experience a much higher death rate from asthma than any other group. In 1995, the death rate for black children was more than four times the rate in white American children. Asthmatic kids cost health plans almost twice as much as other sick children. They end up in the hospital for twice as many days and are given almost three times as many prescriptions.
An inflammatory respiratory disease, asthma is characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness, wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and excess mucus. As a result of this lung inflammation, airways become blocked or narrowed due to swelling, muscular contractions and mucous production. Although these effects are usually temporary, they can produce disturbing symptoms and dramatically affect the amount of oxygen a person takes in. All levels of asthma are serious.
As seen in Williams’ case, asthma can be deadly if not treated properly. More than 5,500 people (14 each day) die from asthma each year with more females dying of asthma than males and more blacks than whites. Those at greatest risk of death from asthma are people older than 50 and younger than 9.
The environmental triggers most likely to cause asthma attacks have become well-defined. Dust mites, cockroaches, mold and animal dander are the principal allergens that trigger asthma symptoms. Tobacco smoke also is an irritant that can trigger an episode and worsen the effects. Other triggers include:
• viral respiratory infections
• exposure to workplace chemicals or allergens
• environmental change resulting from moving or vacation
• exposure to perfumes, hairsprays, air pollutants, vapors, gasses and aerosols
• emotional expressions such as fear, anger, frustration, crying and laughing
• medications such as aspirin, beta-blockers, food additives and preservatives
• changes in weather, air pressure, humidity and cold air
• Exercise. Seventy-five percent of asthma sufferers experience exercise-induced asthma.
• menstrual period, pregnancy or thyroid disease
• cold drinks
It is not known why some people get asthma and others do not. Asthma tends to run in some families and family members have been known to inherit allergies to environmental substances.
Approximately 50 percent of children with asthma outgrow it when they reach adolescence. As a child’s airways mature, they are able to handle airway inflammation and irritants better, so asthma symptoms may decrease. More people in the South have asthma than in any other region.
There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled. There are many medicines to help people with asthma. Some are preventive and others are quick relievers. The preventive drugs are used for long-term control of the disease and work to make attacks less frequent and severe. Quick-reliever medicines offer short-term relief of symptoms when asthma episodes occur.
If you or someone you know has experienced symptoms and suspects they have asthma, schedule an appointment with your health-care provider.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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