When we wake to terror

LIVING with an asthma sufferer means you have to keep your wits about you at all times. Richard Cornwell knows this only too well as his youngest son Elliot has suffered from the condition since he was a toddler.

By Richard Cornwell

LIVING with an asthma sufferer means you have to keep your wits about you at all times. Richard Cornwell knows this only too well as his youngest son Elliot has suffered from the condition since he was a toddler.

IT usually starts with a gasping for breath or an irritating tickly cough.

In our house, it's the sign that the hidden curse of asthma is still with us.

It means a mad dash for the blue inhaler, a deep breath from the mouthpiece, and then panic over.

Then in no time at all, Elliot is dashing around the garden, shouting "I'm Michael Owen" and hammering his football into the goal.

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But something will have triggered his need to use his inhaler – sometimes we are aware of those "triggers" but other times his breathlessness is a mystery.

Usually the inhaler does its job but there have been times when an attack has meant a trip to casualty, and even a stay in hospital.

In truth, every night when I and my wife Rachel go to bed, we never know if we will be woken by a panic-stricken youngster gasping and wheezing, asthma caused by some unknown irritant in the air.

Mowing the lawn or failing to flick the duster round the furniture can lead to an attack which when severe will need a piece of kit called a nebuliser, which thankfully Felixstowe General Hospital has in its possession.

But when a severe attack comes, it is quick and terrifying.

For anyone, but a parent especially, watching a child suffer an asthma attack is just unbearable.

The panic and pain on a youngster's face when an attack is in full flow, and the desperate dash to the hospital casualty for nebuliser treatment, is not an experience any parent relishes.

Imagine taking deep breaths but not being able to get air into your lungs, not being able to relax and breathe normally – breathe as most of us do without even thinking how to do it.

Asthma is not generally a killer, except in its most severest form, but rational thought goes out the window at times like these, especially if the child also has another illness.

We have known that Elliot, now nine, has suffered with asthma since a Christmas-time chest infection led to pneumonia when he was a toddler.

He was taken in the early hours by ambulance to Ipswich Hospital, blue lights flashing, where the excellent doctors immediately realised that he had asthma and it was providing a contributory problem to his pneumonia.

It was a deeply worrying time, but he was in the best place with the best people. After a couple of days he perked up, and pulled through.

Previously there had been no indication that Elliot was an asthma sufferer. There is no asthma in the family and his older brother Matthew, 11, does not have it.

Apart from his stay in hospital, there have been at least two other occasions when Felixstowe General has come to our rescue with its nebulisers.

Watching for the triggers is a full-time job. Elliot's include dust mites, new-mown grass or hay, fog or damp air, and smoke from garden bonfires or cigarettes. Over-excitement can be another.

Any cough or hint of breathlessness is a concern. Colds and chest infections a real worry because of the complications asthma can cause.

Ever since that stay in hospital, he has needed an inhaler morning and night.

First it was a massive plastic "spacer" into which the inhaler's drugs were squeezed and he would breath through, then a smaller "spacer" and after that a pocket-sized gizmo that made a noise like a mouth organ if he breathed in incorrectly.

Now he uses an adult inhaler, without supervision, and is sensible enough to know when he needs it.

He has to take them with him to school, and a spare one has to be taken when we go out anywhere – the car glove compartment carries another just in case.

Thankfully, the condition appears to be easing.

Our own checks on his peak expiratory flow meter are encouraging, the puffs from the inhaler have been reduced, but the regular check-ups with the asthma nurse are still a necessity.




FASTFACTS on asthma

Asthma like its related allergic condtions eczema and hay fever, often runs in families and may be inherited

A child has a 60-70 per cent chance of developing asthma if both their parents have an allergy.

Up to two-thirds of young children experiencing "wheeziness" may grow out of their asthma.

Asthma is triggered by something which irritates the airwats. Common triggers include colds or flu, cigarette smoke, exercise, pollen, furry animals, house-dust mite.

Sports people with asthma include athletic golden girl Paula Radcliffe, Ipswich's medal-winning swimmer Karen Pickering, Manchester United and England midfielder Paul Scholes and England Rugby player Austin Healey.

A study carried out by researchers in the US found one in five American athletes who attended the Winter Olympic games in 1998 had asthma.

A previous study had found that the same proportion of athletes who attended the summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 also suffered from asthma.