Very little compares to the panicked feeling of not being able to breathe. When considering a move to Beijing, where air quality is of utmost concern, people with asthma have good reason to take a serious look at potential risks. However, things might not be quite as bad as you think. While air quality may be a contributing factor for respiratory issues, like a chronic cough, there is no direct correlation between air pollution and asthma.
In fact, many people report that their asthma or other breathing related issues in Beijing have not increased, but rather decreased, while others have not noticed much of a change. beijingkids consulted Dr. Thi Lan Fellay, a pediatrician and family physician at Beijing International SOS Clinic and Dr. Gilbert Shia, a family medicine doctor at International Medical Center in Beijing to offer facts regarding respiratory issues.
The Dreaded Asthma Label
First, it’s important to note that not all respiratory problems, even chronic ones, are diagnosed as asthma. Many patients visit a doctor for a chronic cough or shortness of breath that simply won’t go away. This is called “hyper-reactive airways,” which is a reaction to something such as a virus, pollution or allergen, says Dr. Fellay. In other words, it is not necessarily a life-long condition.
Particularly in younger children, who cannot easily cough or spit up mucus when they need to, moisture from a runny nose gets trapped and creates a vicious circle of continuous coughing. Obviously, this can be worrisome for parents.
Dr. Shia notes that while some people fear being diagnosed as asthmatic, it is best to treat the illness in the early stages so that it can be easily managed and perhaps “grown out of” as time and living circumstances change.
Dr. Fellay concurs, adding that the prognosis of the condition depends on the age of onset. Take a 2-year-old child, for example. If he starts coughing, but Ventolin works, the cause of this cough is likely to be related to the small size of the airways and the problem will disappear in the next two years. By contrast, if a child starts coughing at 4 years of age and responds to Ventolin treatment, the condition is likely to be more complex and long-lasting.
The important thing to keep in mind is that there are many factors for respiratory issues, most of which can be effectively treated, and that doing so early can help prevent long-term or life-threatening effects.
Allergies and Hereditary Factors
Doctors agree that both allergies and genes play a large role in a person developing asthma. Asthma is always related to allergies, most commonly eczema. The pathology for the skin and lungs is similar, so there is a correlation between eczema and asthma. The same is true for genes.
There are many allergens around us, so how can one figure out what triggers respiratory issues? It’s difficult, and is often a trial and error system. Environmental allergens such as trees, grasses and pollens are harder to control because they are so widespread. More contained allergens, such as dust, pets, or feathers, are things that you can test out on your own at home. A simple blood test can pinpoint a person’s allergies.
Reducing Allergens at Home
Asthma has many contributing factors, such as environment, pollution, and dust. While we may not be able to control the larger environmental picture, perhaps we can try to tackle more manageable sections at home. Consider the following:
- Diet: There may be more to the issue of what we put into our bodies as to what we inhale. Younger people tend to have higher amounts of processed foods in their diets, as well as additives. Individual food allergies have increased over the years, too. Dr. Shia suggests seeing a nutritionist to help discover diet issues within the family.
- Green living: With all things sanitized, don’t forget that our bodies need to build up the necessary immunity to combat common allergens on our own.
- Furnishing: Reduce carpeting, soft furnishings, and feather bedding in the house. In Beijing, where dust is a continual battle, it may help to eliminate anything “soft” (which tends to be a dust magnet) from your living quarters.
- Pets: Some say that having a pet reduces the chance of children developing allergies later in life. However, if your pet is creating more sniffles and coughs than love and affection, it’s time to test your kids for pet allergies.
- Air purifiers and humidifiers: Good quality air purifiers reduce allergens in the air and humidifiers keep a dry cough at bay. Make sure you get good quality equipment, and keep in mind the size of the machine in relation to the size of the room.
- Seasons: During the winter months, you can expect to see more cases of respiratory ailments. This is due to the cold virus, more infections, sharing of germs in closed quarters, lack of air circulation, and much more.
Treatments and Suggestions
Dr. Fellay warns against the use – or overuse – of cough syrups, because they don’t treat the root of the problem. You may get a better night’s sleep, since the active ingredients affect the coughing center of the brain, but it’s not a long-term solution. For years, there have been lists of over-the-counter cough medicines that are not recommended for regular use and not suitable for children under the age of 2. While some might see this as an overabundance of caution, the existence of these published lists should raise a red flag.
Most doctors recommend the inhaler Ventolin (the active ingredient is salbutamol) that immediately opens the airways. It’s a mild steroid, which is often a scary prospect for parents to give to their children. However, medical journals indicate that small doses give maximum benefits and prevent long-term problems, and it does not interfere with a child’s growth.
Inhalers are often difficult for young children to manage, so doctors have a device called a “spacer” to help them administer the medicine. The puff of air is encapsulated by a tube, allowing the child to take as many breaths as needed to receive the entire dose of medicine.
Keeping on Top of Things
Because tracking your child’s breathing patterns is important for managing their ongoing care, Dr. Shia highly recommends an inexpensive device that can be purchased at any international hospital or clinic. A peak flow meter, costing around RMB 300, can track symptoms and provide an accurate way to assess how a child is affected. This can help doctors before respiratory issues become a bigger problem.
The patient forcefully blows into a peak flow meter three separate times. Using the sharpest attempt and measuring it at maximum impact, the results can logged in and compared at www.peakflow.com. According to the website, the natural function of lungs goes down at night (which is why problems for asthmatic patients tend to occur at night).
The biggest factor to be aware of is your own medical history and that of your child. Pay attention to what appears to trigger breathing issues and how frequently this happens. It’s important to diagnose respiratory issues early so that they do not become chronic; early treatment means early prevention.
Of course, we all still worry if there is any sign of breathing trouble, especially in our children. Nobody downplays that concern, least of all doctors. As Dr. Fellay says, “the earlier, the stronger, the quicker” is how to attack these problems at the onset. Then you can truly breathe easy.
International Medical Center
Room S106, Lufthansa Center Office Building, 50 Liangma Qiao Lu, Chaoyang District (6465 1561)
Beijing International SOS Clinic
Suite 105, Wing 1, Kunsha Building, 16 Xinyuanli, Chaoyang District (6462 9112)