Are we making our kids asthmatic?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2007

Few families are untouched by allergies; asthma is among the worst. It's a leading reason for hospital admission for children, it causes considerable absenteeism from school and if it is severe it can lead to chronic lung disease in later life.

When infection, chemicals or smoke irritate the tube-like structures that carry air into the lungs these airways become narrower. Not enough oxygen gets into the bloodstream. Breathing becomes difficult as the victim tries to push "used" air out of the lungs and refill them with a fresh supply of oxygen.

In reality, asthma defies such a simple explanation. That doesn't mean that we can't do something to slow down the disease, which has doubled in incidence since 1980. Although it's true that there is a hereditary component, it's also true that we can sometimes prevent it or keep it from becoming a serious problem. Like type 2 diabetes but to a lesser degree, lifestyle factors sometimes determine whether an individual will develop the disease.

For some unlucky children the stage is set before they are born. A mother who smokes is more likely to have a baby that will develop asthma. If she or another family member continues to smoke afterwards the child is at even greater risk.

Is it just a coincidence that childhood asthma is increasing as childhood obesity increases? In 1970 fewer than 4 percent of our children between the ages of 5 and 15 years were obese; now 17 percent are. Obesity not only doubles the risk of asthma, it reduces the quality of life for the child who has both conditions.

What parent has not been frustrated by a child's refusal to eat fruits and vegetables? Not one child in five takes in the recommended 5-serving minimum. The antioxidants in these foods, especially vitamins C and E, protect children from asthma, especially in cities with high levels of ozone and other pollutants.

Most kids don't like fish either. That means that they don't get the omega-3 fatty acids that are abundant in oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel and tuna. Asthmatic children typically have a low intake of omega-3 fats. On the other hand, Americans of all ages get too much omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils. The higher the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, the greater the risk of asthma. Note: frequent fish stick meals actually increase the risk of asthma. Kids love 'em but their bodies don't.

For years pediatricians, including myself, urged parents to get rid of the household cat or dog in order to reduce pet hair and dander. Great theory, wrong advice. It will make most parents and especially the kids happy to hear that having a pet at home does not increase the risk of asthma or make it worse. There might be some exceptions but it's nice to know that we don't need to banish the family pet.

The things that parents can do to protect their children from asthma are simple but they are not easy: stop smoking, provide more fish, fruits and vegetables, encourage more physical activity to lower the risk of overweight. These lifestyle changes won't prevent all asthma but they will certainly lessen it and will improve overall health.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.