By MIRANDA BAINES
THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
May is asthma awareness month, and local health professionals are doing their part to promote awareness of the chronic disease.
Asthma affects children and adults, and for many, it is a lifelong health problem.
“I think a lot of people still have the misconception that you outgrow asthma,” said Connie Cooke, pediatric asthma case manager for Vidant Edgecombe Hospital. “It goes dormant, but it can still flare up as an adult.”
Asthma is defined as a “common chronic disorder of the airways characterized by periods of reversible airflow obstruction know as asthma exacerbations or attacks,” according to the National Surveillance of Asthma: United States, 2001-2010.
“Asthma’s a big thing,” said Cooke. That’s especially the case among children, whose asthma symptoms worsen quickly, often resulting in hospitalization, she said.
Edgecombe County has one of the highest hospitalization rates for asthma in the state. From 2007 until 2011, the county’s rate was between 20.2 and 35 percent per 10,000 population, according to the State Center for Health Statistics.
“We have a lot of kids that go to the emergency room,” said Cooke. “They (parents) need to keep contact with their physician, so we can try to avoid these children having bad flare-ups that put them in the hospital.”
Asthma is the leading chronic health condition reported by North Carolina public schools, affecting 92,838 students in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the North Carolina Asthma Program. In 2010, about 16.8 percent of children under the age of 18 in North Carolina had been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their lives. Statistics show that African-Americans are more likely to suffer from asthma than whites. In 2010, 15.5 percent of African-American adults in North Carolina have been diagnosed with asthma versus 12.2 percent of whites.
“The largest population that’s affected by asthma is African-Americans,” Cooke said. “There are more African-American males that are diagnosed with asthma as young children than any other group.”
Asthma is “an inherited trait; it’s not something that you catch,” said Cooke. While avoiding asthma is impossible, avoiding triggers that can cause asthmatic episodes is a good coping mechanism for sufferers from the chronic disease. Cooke works with parents and school nurses to educate children with asthma about triggers they can avoid, such as cigarette smoke, perfume and common allergens such as dog and cat dander, pollen, mold and dust mites.
Cooke also encourages parents to keep giving their children doctor-prescribed asthma medications, even if they aren’t currently experiencing asthma flare-ups. Avoiding being outdoors on days when the air is polluted with a high number of particles is another way for asthma sufferers to manage their symptoms.
Vidant Edgecombe Hospital raises a flag below the American flag every day to indicate the air quality. A green flag signals good air quality, while a purple flag on the other end of the spectrum signals very unhealthy air quality. Yellow signals moderate air quality, orange signals unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups and red signals unhealthy air quality.
A member of the Asthma Alliance of North Carolina, Cooke’s main goals are to inform the public about asthma and to help asthma sufferers manage their symptoms.
“The program that we have here is really about education,” said Cooke. The pediatric asthma education program is one of four programs of its kind in the Vidant Health System. As a lifelong asthma sufferer, Cooke can attest to the fact that health professionals have come a long way in terms of managing asthma through medication, such as inhalers.
“When I was young, I remember having asthma and there was nothing I could take,” she said. The role that environmental factors play in asthma is still unclear, and Cooke hopes an upcoming study by Greg Kearney, an assistant professor at East Carolina University, will identify the factors for the prevalence of asthma among children in Edgecombe County.