Asthma and Young Athletes August 29, 2007

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When 10-year-old Gustin Nardecchia of Hutto puts on his practice pads and heads for the football field to work out with his team, he will have already taken steps to manage his asthma. Pre-planning means that he will have the breath, energy and stamina to play. He dreams of becoming a professional player -- and having asthma doesnt rule that out. Many players in professional sports today are asthma sufferers, including football star Jerome 'The Bus' Bettis, track star and six-time Olympic Gold Medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and basketball standouts Isaiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman.

For some people, exercise is an asthma trigger. When combined with the high prevalence of allergies, asthma is a problem for someone on almost every area team.

In Central Texas, if you count out 30 players on local sports teams, three to five of them will have asthma, says Asthma Case Manager Brittany Christiansen, BSRC, RRT, AE-C who is part of the Seton Asthma Center at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas . "Thats because there is a higher incidence in Travis County than most other places. Up to 15 percent of area residents have it."

Unfortunately, the wheezing, shortness of breath and lack of energy prevent many youngsters from becoming active, something that concerns Brittany. "It's not good for a child not to be active," she says. "Often it leads to obesity. Typically, the more obese a child is, the more likely they will not want to be active. If they already have asthma symptoms, obesity can make the symptoms worse."

That tendency is a primary concern for Gustin's mom, Virginia Nardecchia, who wants her whole family to be active. "I don't want them to be overweight or anything because diabetes runs in my family. I try to keep the kids involved in sports. I want them to have an active life."

Learning to Manage Asthma

All four of Virginia's children suffer from asthma, but all four still are active in sports. Her three girls, Angel, Katie and Julianna have played softball or soccer and now are involved in cheerleading. Gustin has played several different sports. All also do well in school.

Virginia brought the whole family to the Seton Asthma Center to learn how to control their symptoms every day and especially during those times when they are getting the most exercise.

"One of the primary goals of the Center is to let parents know it's okay for the children to participate in sports and physical activity," continues Brittany. "Having asthma is not a good reason for them not to be active."

The Seton Asthma Center sets up one-on-one counseling for families to teach them how to best manage and use their medications, what to do every day and how to react to a severe attack. The counseling is open to anyone with no age limit. Participants can self-refer, receive a referral from their physician or from Student Health Services in the Austin Independent School District. "Families are more than welcome to bring extended family members or others who care for the child," says Brittany.

The Center creates an action plan for each individual that provides detailed information for reference in case a child needs help. It's signed by the child's physician and copies can be shared with teachers, school nursing personnel and coaches.

"We discourage children and families from feeling like they can't participate in sports. Exercise plays a role in improving their lung health, so we want them to be active," adds Brittany.

Tips to Manage Asthma During Sports

Several actions can maximize a young athlete's ability to manage asthma, if followed on a regular basis. These ideas should not be a substitute for an individual action plan.

  • Keep asthma under good daily control. Usually that includes taking daily medication as prescribed and frequent check-ups with the doctor.
  • Pre-treat. Use the quick-relief inhaler 15-to-20 minutes before exercise begins to open airways. This also reduces the need for medication after exercise.
  • Warm up thoroughly - perhaps a little longer than teammates to make sure the body is ready for play.
  • Make sure the quick-relief inhaler is on hand at all times. If chest tightness or difficulty breathing occur, use the inhaler as prescribed.
  • In cold weather, avoid breathing in cold, dry air. Wrap a scarf around the mouth and nose and remember to breathe through the nose instead of the mouth.
  • Cool down at the end of the workout.

"With proper management, young athletes with asthma can keep up as well as their teammates," says Brittany.

It seems to be working for the Nardecchias. "My kids are in excellent health," comments Virginia. "I tell Gustin if sports are what you want to do, go win a gold medal. It's good for us to have goals."

Learn More

The Seton Asthma Center now is open to both children and adults who need more education to manage their asthma. Classes are available in English and Spanish. Check Asthma Services at Dell Children's for more information, including frequently asked questions and useful fact sheets . You can also request more information on Seton Asthma Center classes.

The Health Encyclopedia also contains detailed information about asthma and how to manage the condition in English and Spanish.

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