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The Asthma Section

Kids with Asthma Can Play Sports

But not every kid with asthma is a Brett or a Katherine. There is growing evidence that some young people with asthma shy away – not just from team sports – but from physical activity period. Researchers at John Hopkins Medicine conducted a telephone survey of 243 parents in 2004 and discovered that 20 per cent of asthmatic children were not getting enough exercise.

The lack of activity stemmed partly from misguided beliefs: 25 per cent of parents surveyed with an asthmatic child were afraid their child would get sick if he or she exercised. The kids’ attitudes toward exercising also played a role: 25 per cent of the parents responded that their child gets “upset with strenuous activity”.

A study published in the Journal of Asthma in March compared overweight status in adolescents with and without asthma; the study authors found that receiving an asthma diagnosis in early childhood may increase the likelihood of becoming overweight. Kaplan relates that he has been approached by parents asking him to write a note dismissing their child from gym class. “There are people who use asthma as an excuse not to exercise.”

For parents who don’t know a lot about the disease, hearing that their child has asthma can be alarming. There’s often a lack of understanding of both the disease and the level of control that should be attainable. When Jordan Stewart of Thornhill, Ontario, was diagnosed at age 3, his mother Tula Stewart was terrified. “My heart just dropped,” she says. “I was devastated. You hear stories of people dying from it; that was probably my biggest fear.”

The family doctor prescribed Jordan a puffer, but the asthma symptoms continued. At times of the year when Jordan had a cold, and during the spring and fall allergy seasons, he would cough and wheeze and become short of breath. At age 6, his parents enrolled him in soccer but that was short-lived.

As Stewart recalls, it just wasn’t worth the risk of having to rush him to the hospital. The Stewarts hadn’t yet learned enough about properly using medications to control Jordan’s asthma.

In Nova Scotia, Kelly Saulnier’s daughter, Jenna, had been no stranger to the emergency room during asthma flare-ups that often turned into pneumonia. Because of the susceptibility to pneumonia, Jenna was on puffers from her first year of life.

But it wasn’t until she was 7 or 8 that she was officially diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. (While her asthma is mostly set off by exercise, it can also be triggered by viral infections.) Upon hearing that diagnosis, Saulnier worried: would this leave her daughter on the sidelines of sports?

Parents’ fears are certainly not allayed by the stereotypes in popular culture. Asthmatics are just not portrayed as robust, healthy and as physically capable as others. For example, in the long-running sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle”, Malcolm’s friend from the gifted class, Stevie, is a wheelchair-bound asthmatic.

This kind of typecasting irritates Favaro: “Off the top of my head, I can think of Piggy [the smart, overweight asthmatic] from Lord of the Flies; I can think of the bad guy from the James Bond Casino Royale movie, and I can think of [Superman’s arch nemesis] Lex Luther from Smallville.” (The character had asthma as a child.)

“They’re never people that are high achievers, or the good guy. It’s the bad guy with his platinum inhaler; it’s always the fat kid; it’s always the kid who can’t do anything,” says Favaro, who’s completing an undergraduate degree in biology at Simon Fraser.

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.