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Parents Miss Some Effective Asthma Steps

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TUESDAY, Aug. 17 (HealthDayNews) -- Many parents of asthmatic children may have the best of intentions but the worst of solutions when they try to protect their kids from allergens, new research suggests.

For example, instead of quitting smoking or shutting windows to keep out pollen, parents often turn to expensive air filters or fancy vacuums, notes the report in the August issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

"Parents are very enthusiastic about doing something, but a lot of times they were using techniques that didn't make sense considering their children's asthma triggers," said study author Dr. Michael Cabana, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan.

Cabana and his colleagues interviewed 896 parents of asthmatic children and found that only about half of the 1,788 steps that were taken are generally considered effective in preventing attacks.

About 10 percent of children have asthma, which appears to be caused by immune systems that overreact to invaders.

The good news from the study is that about 80 percent of the parents knew at least one substance that "triggered" their child's asthma, and four-fifths of those took steps to help their kid, Cabana said.

But the Michigan researchers also found that one-quarter of the parents surveyed reported that at least one family member smoked but nothing had been done to mitigate the child's exposure to tobacco smoke. And in many cases, they turned to devices such as air filters, which aren't as effective as other steps they could have taken, Cabana said.

"You might have parents who describe their triggers as being an outdoor allergen, and they're replacing mattresses and putting on special mattress covers or pillow encasings," he said. "They aren't helpful for outdoor allergens, but they are helpful for dust mites."

In a small number of cases, the parents took actions that could actually be harmful, such as running a humidifier in a household where a child is allergic to dust mites. According to the authors, a dehumidifier is a better choice.

Dr. Katharine Woessner, an allergist at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, agreed that humidifiers can spell trouble. Parents "think if they add more moisture to the air that will be helpful. But the more humidity there is in the environment, the higher level of dust mites and more potential of mold spore contamination," she said.

On the other hand, parents are often reluctant to give up pets -- despite what some people may insist, there is no hypoallergenic cat or dog, she said -- and don't realize that overwatered houseplants and carpets can be breeding grounds for allergens.

"For kids, what's going on in the environment has a huge impact on their asthma," she said, especially since children appear to be spending more time indoors watching TV and playing video games.

Dr. Robert Zeiger, head of allergy research with the Kaiser Permanente health plan in San Diego, said doctors need to do a better job of educating parents about how to protect their children from asthma triggers.

For example, it's important for parents to realize that viral infections -- not environmental triggers such as dust or pollen -- contribute the most to the asthma problems of children under age 5, he said.

"Between the ages of 5 and 20, probably up to 90 percent of children who have asthma on a persistent basis have it related in large measure due to allergies," he added.

So, what should you do if your child has asthma?

To Cabana, the answer is simple: Conduct a little research.

"Before making major changes to the house, before ripping up the carpet or making a major investment in a new air system, it's important to consult your physician," he said.

More information

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology offers resources for asthmatic kids.

SOURCES: Michael Cabana, M.D., M.P.H., pediatrician, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Katharine Woessner, M.D., allergist, Scripps Clinic, San Diego; Robert Zeiger, M.D., Ph.D., director, allergy research, Kaiser Permanente San Diego, and clinical professor, pediatrics, University of California at San Diego; August 2004 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
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