Breathe easy: 5 tips for managing asthma in school
FARGO — In the first few weeks of school, students will do their best to remember important things — exam dates, homework due dates, even when the next school break is. But thousands of students need to remember something even more important: what to do to prevent an asthma attack during school hours.
According the the American Lung Association, 6.2 million children in the U.S. live with asthma, approximately 50,000 in North Dakota alone. One of them is Will Ahlfeldt, a Fargo eighth-grader.
"When he was 2, I thought he just had a cold," says his mother, Stephanie Ahlfeldt. "But when he had trouble breathing, I was panicked. I took him to the walk-in, and he ended up with a nebulizer."
Since that time, the Ahlfeldts have managed Will's asthma with albuterol and corticosteroid medications — twice a day in the fall and spring when seasonal allergies trigger his symptoms. Ahlfeldt says when Will started school she knew they'd have to review how to manage his asthma. So she talked to his doctor and the school nurse.
"It is imperative that a child's parent, teachers and coaches are all on the same page when it comes to their asthma," says Jill Heins, senior regional director of lung health and indoor air quality for the American Lung Association. "No asthma is the same. Each child has different asthma triggers, unique medication plans and a protocol for their care. Every person involved in a child's life needs to be aware of the plan."
Most of the time, parents know what to do to help their child breathe easier at home. But what happens when you drop off your child at school? How can parents minimize the chances their child will have a life-threatening asthma attack?
The Lung Association offers these tips for parents and teachers to work together to better manage a child's asthma.
1. Create an asthma action plan
Meet with your child's asthma doctor to create a management plan to track your child's medication and healthcare needs. "When a student is diagnosed with asthma, we send an emergency asthma plan to parents," says West Fargo Lead School Nurse Lisa Vasichek. "It does need to be signed by a physician. Sometimes the doctor has completed an asthma action plan for us. This information is then communicated to teachers and staff that may work with the student." Medication and environmental triggers are both important in managing your child's asthma and are outlined in the asthma action plan. Ahlfeldt says their family, along with Will's doctor, discuss his asthma action plan every year.
2. Meet with school personnel
At the beginning of the school year, meet with your child's new teachers, school nurse and coaches to discuss the asthma action plan. This also provides an opportunity for parents to get to know the school nurse. It can be something as simple as just touching base to see if anything has changed or letting teachers and nurses know of a significant switch in how asthma is being treated.
3. Manage asthma triggers in the classroom
During your meeting with the school, inquire about asthma triggers in the classroom, including class pets, carpeting, food, exercise, air quality and many others. Ahlfeldt says Will's triggers include some plants, but also animals including dogs, cats, rabbits and even birds, so she tries to stay on top of whether Will would go on outdoor field trips or be exposed to classroom pets.
4. Teach your child how to manage their asthma
All children, even younger ones, are encouraged to learn to manage their own asthma, including avoiding their triggers, recognizing their signs and symptoms and knowing when to take (or ask for) medications. "When (Will) was little, I'd tell him it was OK to be around pets, but not to touch them," Ahlfeldt says. "He learned how to deal with it." The Asthma Basics program can help parents and children learn about asthma together.
5. Assess your child's readiness to carry medication
In many school districts, policies are in place to allow students to carry and self-administer their own asthma medication, such as rescue inhalers. "I would say the majority of our secondary students in grades 6-12 carry their inhalers," Vasichek says. "If the parent and physician have completed the self-administration medication form, that is all we need for a student to carry and self-administer their inhaler." Elementary students generally keep inhalers and nebulizers in the school offices, largely because many aren't yet able to be responsible for them. They get lost or left outside on the playground. Contact your school health services staff to find out more about your school's policy. According to The American Lung Association, asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalizations among children under 15 and is one of the main reasons students miss school due to illness.
In fact, asthma results in almost 10 million lost school days every year. These tips are an effective way to minimize the chances of that happening. "We've always lived with limitations like this and we feel bad about it, but it's something we have to do," Ahlfeldt says. "He needs to stay healthy and that's the most important thing."