Click here to learn more about asthma symptoms and deaths.
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At least Kathy Cordes has finished her prednisone prescription.
She still must use an antihistamine and two asthma medications — an inhaler and a tablet — every day. And she keeps an albuterol inhaler on hand for emergencies.
When you have asthma, Cordes says, “you just kind of learn to deal. You learn that medication is a part of your life.”
Asthma increasingly has become an unwelcome part of the lives of many Americans: By 2010, the chronic airway disease had afflicted 18.7 million adults and 7 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Every year, asthma sends millions of people to the hospital or causes them to miss school or work. In 2009, it killed nearly 3,400 Americans.
A week and a half ago, it killed 10-year-old Dynasty Reese, a fifth-grader at Conestoga Magnet Center in northeast Omaha.
Dynasty awoke at 3:30 a.m. on May 8 and ran into her grandfather's bedroom, saying she couldn't breathe. Her grandfather, Eugene Cosey, said he tried to help her use her emergency inhaler, but she still couldn't catch her breath.
“She went into a state of shock. It scared her so bad,” Cosey said.
He called 911, but he said the girl had seizures and then passed out before paramedics arrived. She was put on a respirator at the hospital, Cosey said, but later was declared brain dead.
Dynasty died May 10.
Cosey said Dynasty didn't take asthma medication daily and her asthma was considered mild. She played volleyball at school, he said, and didn't have breathing trouble during or after games.
In the days before the asthma attack, however, she had been using her inhaler to help her breathe, he said.
About 10 percent of the students in the Omaha Public Schools have asthma, said Sharon Wade, the district's health services supervisor.
“There's definitely been an increase in the identification of asthma and allergies” over the years, she said.
Wade noted that when she worked as a school nurse for OPS in 1988, she served four schools. “At the most,” she said, “there were six inhalers between the four schools.”
When she left Beveridge Middle School in 2003, “I had 150 inhalers. There were only 800 kids there.”
In Douglas County, almost 10 percent of adults have asthma, up from about 8 percent in 2006. The numbers are worse in the African-American community, where the incidence of asthma is nearly two and a half times as high as in other population groups in the county.
Dr. Linda Ford, who runs the Asthma & Allergy Center in Bellevue, said the increase in asthma could be tied to an increase in allergies, because allergies represent 80 percent of asthma triggers. The increase in allergies, she said, could be related to higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
She said a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has shown that ragweed, a highly allergenic plant, produces more — and more allergenic — pollen under today's higher carbon dioxide levels than what was in our atmosphere 50 and 100 years ago. And CO2 levels are expected to keep rising.
Ford also noted that a report she co-authored found that the number of frost-free days is increasing in North America, lengthening the life of pollen-producing plants.
Pollen stimulates the production of antibodies, which stimulates the production of histamine. It's the histamine that causes the runny and stuffy noses, watery eyes, sneezing and inflamed nasal passages.
Allergies aren't the only asthma triggers. Such things as cigarette smoke, pollution, pet dander, mold, infections and strenuous exercise also can bring on an asthma attack.
With asthma, the airways in the lungs become inflamed, narrow and fill with mucus, making it difficult to breathe. In an asthma attack, people can feel tightness in the chest, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
Parents need to get their children checked for asthma, said Dr. Jill Poole, an allergist and associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “They should get an asthma action plan,” she said. “Understand what their triggers are. Take their medications and do regular follow-up — that tends to be where the ball is dropped. People don't refill their medicines on a monthly basis.”
Kathy Cordes makes sure she does. Cordes, 64, lives out in the country, in south Sarpy County. She's an outdoorsy person, she said, but she's allergic to trees, grasses, weeds and mold.
After she mows the lawn, she comes inside, blows her nose and takes a shower. She keeps her short-nap carpeting vacuumed and her bedding washed. She has window blinds instead of drapes.
The past couple of weeks, Cordes said, her husband has done the mowing. A little over a week ago, “I was struggling to the point where I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs, I was so out of breath.” That's when she went to Dr. Ford's office and was prescribed the prednisone.
Asthma “is a very manageable disease, for the most part,” she said. “You're bound to have flare-ups occasionally, but if you manage the little things, the big things don't happen so much.”
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These can differ for each person, but here are some of the most common:
• Wheezing: You may notice a wheezing sound when you breathe. Sometimes this happens only when you exercise or have a cold.
• Frequent cough: This may be more common at night. You may or may not cough up mucus.
• Shortness of breath: This is the feeling that you can't get enough air into your lungs. It may occur often or only once in awhile.
• Chest tightness: Your chest may feel tight, especially during cold weather or exercise. This also can be the first sign of a flare-up.
Talk to your health-care provider if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.
Source: American Lung Association