Flu Shots Fight Asthma

If your child has asthma, be sure to get a flu shot.

A flu shot?

“Influenza is a major aggravator of asthma,” says Rigoberto Núñez, M.D., president of the medical executive committee at Miami Children’s Hospital and a doctor in private practice in the Miami area.

That’s because the flu can cause complications such as pneumonia, sending the victim to the emergency room. Add asthma to the mix and the health risk meter jumps even higher.

“The lungs are a part of the respiratory system as well as the nasal system. If one gets congested, the other gets congested. Everything upstairs has got to go downstairs,” says Steven Levy, M.D., a pediatrician of general pediatrics and pediatric allergy medicine at Tejas Medical Associates.

Shots cut back on emergencies

A study in the Journal of Pediatrics says vaccinating all children who have asthma may prevent 59 percent to 78 percent of asthma hospitalizations and emergency room visits during flu season. Each year, influenza sends 114,000 people, including young children, to the hospital.

Asthma is a lung disease caused by inflamed airways in the lungs. The inflammation restricts airflow, leading to wheezing and shortness of breath. If the inflammation is severe, it can be life threatening.

About 17 million Americans suffer from asthma, more than 7 million of them children younger than 18.

The incidence of asthma is rising more rapidly among preschool children than in any other age group. It accounts for one-third of pediatric emergency room visits and is the fourth most common cause for physician visits. The number of deaths related to asthma in children has nearly tripled during the past 15 years.

Late fall, early winter

The flu roars into millions of American homes around December and January. The best time to get a shot is before it peaks. During the 2003 to 2004 flu season, the vaccine was only partly effective against the new strain that struck. This led to more deaths, particularly in young children, a national scare that exhausted the nation’s supply of vaccine. People with asthma should get the vaccine early next year when supplies are adequate. Núñez points out that flu is just one of many possible triggers for asthma attacks. There are also such allergens as animal dander, dust mites and cigarette smoke.

He also makes use of inhaled beta-2 agonists, particularly levalbuterol, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for children 6 and older. The medication, used in nebulizers, helps control asthma by relaxing and opening the smooth muscles of the airways, allowing air to flow more easily in and out of the lungs.

Yet it’s wise to eliminate as many factors as possible, and Núñez urges parents to get their children to the doctor for a flu shot. Grocery stores, pharmacies and local health departments sometimes offer flu shots on certain days before flu season.

“Our goal in treating asthma is to keep the child leading a normal life,” Núñez says.