CRANBERRY TWP — Experts at Breathe Pennsylvania are working hard to ensure that children with asthma and their families have the knowledge they need to control the serious lung disease.
Jessica Schuman, the director of asthma education and programs and a registered nurse with Breathe Pennsylvania, takes the School Asthma Initiative program to schools in 10 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“They each get two sessions,” Schuman said. “We’ve reached more than 400 students so far this year.”
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s website, asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing.
The School Asthma Initiative program sees Schuman or her partner, Jeannie Simms, collaborate with school nurses to offer education on asthma and the proper tools that accompany it.
The school nurse contacts the parents of asthmatic students to get permission for the student to participate in the program, and those students are assembled for Schuman’s visit.
“We want children to identify early warning signs (of asthma) so they can get to the nurse quicker,” Schuman said.
In addition to improving the students’ confidence in recognizing their initial asthma symptoms, the program helps avoid 911 calls and ultimately keeps students in the classroom longer because they are educated on asthma and their symptoms are controlled, Schuman said.
She explained that regarding rescue inhalers for an asthma attack, most schools work with the child and parent to ensure the student properly understands what they need to do if they feel an attack coming on.
She said most students are responsible enough to carry their rescue inhalers during the school day by the time they reach middle school.
“You’re not going to hand it to a kindergartner,” Schuman said.
Breathe Pennsylvania also holds Asthma Camp each year at a popular Pittsburgh-area attraction.
Schuman said the camp was held last year at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, and this year’s venue is Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh.
She said all children with asthma who are in fourth, fifth or sixth grades are invited to attend the event, which includes a half-day education followed by free time in the amusement park.
Schuman said asthma can be a complicated disease, and she stressed that parents who have a youngster with a diagnosis should not assume the doctor will tell them everything they need to know.
Many parents automatically think pets or carpet when they hear an asthma diagnosis and begin to make changes, when the child’s trigger could be an allergen that exists outdoors, Schuman said.
“We need to ask a lot of questions of our doctors,” she said.
Schuman explained that asthma is genetic, so if one parent carries the gene, a child has a 25 percent chance of contracting asthma. If both parents carry the gene, that chance increases to 50 percent.
An allergy attack or a case of bronchitis or pneumonia could precipitate an asthma event, she said.
“Those would become (the child’s) triggers, then,” she said.
While asthma in children and adults cannot be prevented, it can be controlled, Schuman said.
She recommends that parents of children younger than 5 years old who suspect their child may have asthma keep a journal of their symptoms to share with their pediatrician.
Older children having wheezing and other asthma symptoms must complete a comprehensive diagnosis process to determine whether they have asthma and if so, what the treatment plan will be.
She said most people with severe cases of asthma take daily inhaled corticosteroids, which serves as a long-acting bronchodilator to keep symptoms at bay.
Those inhalers prevent asthma from kicking up so quickly when exposed to a trigger such as pet dander or outdoor allergens.
Rescue inhalers are for acute asthma attacks, and act within three to five minutes to reverse an attack.
“If you were out and about and ran into a friend with dogs and you’re triggered by dogs, the rescue inhaler works on the muscles in the airway for an attack,” Schuman said.
She cautioned that asthmatics should not use their rescue inhalers regularly because they could build up a tolerance and be left with asthma that is hard to control.
“We don’t want to use the short-acting inhaler a lot,” Schuman said. “If they’re using the rescue inhaler all the time, that is a sign that the asthma is out of control and needs to be re-evaluated.”
Schuman said she used her bachelor of science degree in nursing to work with asthmatics because she too is a sufferer.
“I can identify with the kids (who have asthma,)” she said. “I’ve spent my entire nursing career educating people about lung health because I want to give back to the people who helped me.”
Schuman takes Albuterol and Flovent to control her asthma, which are taken by inhaler and nasal mist, respectively, because the oral corticosteroids can cause weight gain and diabetes.
Schuman emphasizes that parents with children who are asthmatic should educate themselves about the disease and ask questions of their pediatricians.
“Being educated is the biggest first step in understanding asthma,” she said.