Asthma can take breath away

By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

There are times when breathing is a chore for 13-year-old Eric Wilson of Fulton.

The trouble began when he was a toddler. He could be breathing fine, then he'd start coughing and wheezing.

"We were frightened. We didn't know what to think," said Kim Wilson, Eric's mother. "He was about 2 when it started. We went all around the world to find out he had asthma."

He was tested for leukemia and cystic fibrosis before the diagnosis was made, Kim said.

Now a seventh-grader at Fulton Junior High School, Eric has a long history with asthma that includes a good number of hospital trips.

"He has been hospitalized seven times for pneumonia because of asthma," said Kim, adding that her son has visited the emergency room more than 20 times because of the illness.

During all his hospital trips, Eric has never been placed on a respirator, but he's been close, according to his father, Don Wilson.

"(Eric has) had IVs and oxygen tents," Don said. Eric nodded his head, remembering.

Troubling disease

Those frequent hospital trips could be a thing of the past if current trends continue. Eric hasn't had a major asthma attack in the past year.

A regimen of four different medications helps. Age may also be a factor. Asthma affects people of all ages, but kids can outgrow the disease, said Dr. Keith Mansel, an Oxford pulmonologist.

"For many people, their asthma improves as they get older," Mansel said.

That's good news for people like Eric, but there's also some bad news floating around. The American Lung Association reports that the incidence of asthma has increased 61 percent since the early 1980s, while the death toll has nearly doubled to reach 5,000 a year.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 14 and 15 million people have asthma. That number includes about 4.8 million children.

"The instance of asthma has gone up. The hospitalization is up and mortality is up," Mansel said. "I've had several Ole Miss students we've had to put on life support during the five years I've been here."


The medical community has responded to the increase incidence of asthma by focusing more attention on the illness. That worldwide attention has resulted in better treatments for patients even if researchers still don't know exactly what's causing the increase in asthma cases.

Harold Plunkett, a respiratory therapist and program director of the Itawamba Community College respiratory therapy program, said many researchers believe indoor air could be causing the increase.

"With air conditioning and insulation, people are spending more time indoors and that air has no place to go," Plunkett said.


In addition to common allergy and asthma triggers like dust mites and pet dander, homes are now filled with a variety of detergents, disinfectants and other chemicals.

"The list of substances that can trigger an asthma attack goes on and on," Plunkett said.

One aspect of treating asthma involves discovering what triggers the attacks and getting rid of it.

"Eliminating the triggers is not an easy task. For example, you can't rid the environment of cold air," Plunkett said.

Plenty of outdoor irritants, such as pollens and the dander from animals, can spur asthma attacks. Exercise is also a common trigger.

Eric is happy to say exercise is not one of his triggers. While he can't attend a rodeo without having to fight for air, he has no problem putting on pads and a helmet.

"This is my second year to play football. Exercise doesn't bother me," said Eric, who describes asthma as "a hard time trying to breathe."

Eric and his family haven't beaten asthma. He still has attacks on occasion, but with the aid of medication, his condition has improved.

"It's gotten a lot better," Eric said. "I hope it stays that way."

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