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Breathing easier

On the front lines of asthma education, Nursing professors teach children how to accept the condition, manage symptoms and reduce risk factors

Aug. 8, 2011

Wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. This is asthma, and its symptoms were first recorded nearly 5,000 years ago.

Today, it is still the most common chronic illness of childhood with about 6.5 million children under the age of 18 diagnosed with asthma in the United States. It is still the leading cause of disability in children.

Sharon Horner
Through her research, Dr. Sharon Horner is working to improve the health of children with asthma, particularly those who live in rural areas. She will become associate dean for research at the School of Nursing on Sept. 1.

It is a life-long condition, and there is no cure.

Two University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing faculty researchers are conducting asthma self-management education studies with the goal of decreasing severity of attacks and improving the quality of life for children with the disease.

Through their community and school-based education programs, Drs. Sharon Horner and Eileen Kintner are teaching children how to accept their condition, manage symptoms, use appropriate medications and reduce environmental risk factors.

They are working with the children and family members, caregivers, friends, neighbors, coaches, teachers and other school personnel.

“Before, I felt lonely, not being able to play. Every week, we had to run the mile. In the beginning, I would be equal starting out. Then, I would have to stop and walk. The others would get way ahead. I’d try to catch up, but end up having to slow down. I’d have to finish the last lap by myself. Everyone was waiting for me and thinking, ‘Why can’t he run?’” — Child with asthma*

The disease, which inflames and narrows the airways (tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs) in the lungs, most often starts during childhood. During acute episodes, bronchial constriction, swelling of the airway wall and excessive mucus production decrease the ability to take in and breathe out air.

“Perhaps the best definition is how some children with asthma describe their condition: ‘I’m not able to do things other kids do,’” said Kintner.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma has increased among persons of all ages. In 2009, 24.6 million persons had asthma compared to 20.3 million persons with asthma in 2001.

Eileen Kintner
Children in Dr. Eileen Kintner’s asthma education classes learn about what causes asthma and practice how to tell someone when they are having an episode.

It is more prevalent among children than adults, women than men and blacks than whites. Most persons with asthma can be symptom-free if they receive appropriate medical care, use inhaled corticosteroids when prescribed and modify their environment to reduce or eliminate exposure to allergens and irritants.

“Asthma has increased significantly among children 5-14 years of age,” said Horner, whose health education program is aimed primarily at helping rural school-aged children with the condition. “While asthma affects the child, the work to manage the disease can impact the entire family and also those in school and other community settings.”

Away from home, children need to be able to recognize early asthma warning signs, get help from other adults like teachers and coaches when they are having asthma symptoms and become more aware of asthma triggers and ways to avoid triggers, she said.

“When I was sick all of the time, I had forgotten who I was. I stopped seeing my friends. I hated when I had to stay out and everyone else kept on going. Now, my life is different. Now, when my friends see me getting tired, THEY ALL STOP. They all know about the asthma. My friends are really cool about it.” — Child with asthma

“Knowing who to tell, what to say, when to share and how to present asthma information can help other people better respond to meet your needs,” said Kintner.

Childhood asthma carries a heavy price tag for families in terms of health care costs, disruptions in family routines, lost wages, loss of learning time and even premature death, the researchers pointed out.

Horner is particularly interested in asthma education for rural families because there is a greater prevalence of chronic illnesses, lower education levels and poverty in these areas. Those living in the country also may be exposed to more allergens.

“Most of the information on childhood asthma has come from studies conducted in urban centers,” said Horner. “Yet, the lack of available, qualified health care providers and lack of urgent care services are extreme in rural areas.

These families travel a fair distance to receive good health care and when a child has worsening asthma symptoms, how far a family has to travel for medical help just increases the risk of a negative outcome.”

During their school lunch breaks, children in Horner’s treatment group learned how to deal with exacerbating situations, such as caring for animals or hard play outside. They practiced using teaching inhalers (which contained no medicine) and peak flow meters, simple devices that help measure airflow in the lungs.

Home visits also were incorporated into the treatment study. Families were given a peak flow meter and were taught how to use it and interpret the scores.

At the beginning of the study, Horner found some of the children had no prescribed medications for asthma and 42 percent of the children had their medication only at home. Only 19 percent of the children had a peak flow meter to use.

“My asthma is onset by exercise and I absolutely hate it. It’s like I can’t do anything without having to take a nasty tasting inhaler. That is so annoying to me. It’s embarrassing when people are watching me take it.” — Child with asthma

Having asthma doesn’t mean a child has to totally limit activities, the researchers said.

A drawing by a child with asthma
Elementary school children expressed their feelings about asthma through drawings.

Some people who have asthma will have symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing, even when they are not active. Other people have asthma that is caused only by exercise. In both cases, symptoms of asthma can almost always be prevented.

“Some people avoid the symptoms by keeping their asthma under control using long-term controller medications,” said Kintner. “For other people, taking quick-relief medicine before they exercise helps them prevent symptoms.”

Kintner’s asthma education program is primarily for medically underserved children in urban areas. The students participate in 10 academic and counseling sessions during school hours.

During these sessions, they work on spelling words, math problems, reading assignments and other learning activities — including drawing pictures and writing poems or songs — to describe what it’s like to live with asthma. They also practice how to tell someone when they’re having an asthma episode.

“I feel that living with asthma is pretty easy if you learn to control it. Most of the time you have to give up certain sports for certain reasons, but most of the time you can pretty much do what everyone else does. I personally think that other people should learn about asthma, so if someone near them has symptoms, they will know what to do.” — Child with asthma

Kintner’s project monitors children as they transition from elementary school into middle school at sixth and seventh grades.

“Because children are moving toward more personal responsibility, it is a perfect time to learn about managing their own health conditions,” Kintner said. “We teach the children that they have a personal choice for how they want to manage their asthma. When a person has accepted their asthma, they feel empowered, responsible and prepared to manage and control their symptoms. They are able to set their own personal goals for control of their condition.”

Horner and Kintner pointed out that each child has different stimuli that cause asthma symptoms. These include food allergies, weather changes and outdoor air quality, dust mites, animal or mold allergies, environmental conditions, heartburn, strong smells, odors and sprays, colds and infections laughing or talking loudly and exercise.

The children in their programs are taught ways to avoid or control each one of these stimuli and are encouraged to keep written records of their activities. The research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers have found positive results from their educational programs, including improved asthma self-management skills, reduced asthma symptom frequency and severity, and lower hospitalization and use of healthcare services. The children also missed less school after participating in the programs.

“The reduction in absences is significant — an improvement that benefits the child, parents and the schools,” said Horner. “Not only were the children better able to care for their asthma, but they can now do so in situations where adults are not around.”

“Living with asthma is kind of hard and it is sort of easy. I think that when you have asthma you have a bigger responsibility. What I mean by having a bigger responsibility is you have to make sure you keep your asthma under control, keep your inhaler with you at all times and more.” — Child with asthma

*The children’s quotes and drawings are from participants in Dr. Eileen Kintner’s asthma education program.

For more information, contact: Nancy Neff;
Photos of Drs. Sharon Horner and Eileen Kintner: Marsha Miller

10 Comments to "On the front lines of asthma education, Nursing professors teach children how to accept the condition, manage symptoms and reduce risk factors"

1.  heather becker said on Aug. 8, 2011

I love the quotes from the kids.

2.  Lloyd Spruce said on Aug. 9, 2011

Excellent piece Nancy Neff. Two very hard working research nursing scientists. & Congrats to Dr. Sharon Horner soon to be associate dean for research at Nursing on Sept. 1.

3.  Martha Hudson said on Aug. 9, 2011

It’s so nice to see students are being educated and impowered on ways to accept the condition, and manage their asthma. This is very beneficial to children. Their drawing are so powerful with expressing how asthma affects them.

4.  Zara said on Aug. 9, 2011

As a 20-year-old with asthma, a lot of the quotes from the children were the same exact things I said when I was in grade school, having to run the mile and participate in physical activities. I was also bullied because of it. I hope that the asthmatic kids today don’t have to suffer through that experience.

5.  Princeton Marks said on Aug. 11, 2011

“Asthma has increased significantly among children 5-14 years of age,” — WHY? Thank God (and Homer/Kintner) someone is paying attention to the suffering children (the comments left me in tears), but when are medical professionals going to begin to focus on CAUSAL FACTORS(over development/pollution, over-planting pollen spreaders where there are no receivers, global warming, tradewinds, whatever), instead of symptoms? This is an ongoing and disturbing American phenomena –just take your pill/inhaler/etc. and everything will be OK . “It is a life-long condition, and there is no cure. ” –WRONG. DISCOVER THE CAUSE, DISCOVER THE CURE. PLEASE. Your hard work is sincerely appreciated by those affected, please keep trying.

6.  Ann Gallaway said on Aug. 18, 2011

If I had asthma, I’d take a very long look at the Buteyko breathing method, which was covered by Jane Brody in the NY Times in Nov. 2009. It has been known to rid asthmatics of all symptoms and enable them to drop all medication. As one might predict, the method, though developed in the 1950s (by a Russian, oh no), is controversial in the conservative medical community. See

7.  Linda Russell, PhD said on Aug. 18, 2011

Kudos to these wonderful researchers/professors who are working with asthma programs for those afflicted with it. I did my doctoral dissertation on asthma education for children and adolescents at UT 11 years ago and there weren’t too many (if any at all) professors interested in my research.

8.  Dottie said on Sept. 7, 2011

Dr. Kintner’s learning program does indeed have spelling, math, and other fun learning activities like drawing and writing about one’s life with asthma. What is more important, however, is that students are given an in-depth education about asthma, with no “dumbing-down” or “talking-down” to them. Many become “asthma experts!” More than a few teach their families, some members of which have had poorly controlled asthma all their lives, what to do to lead a better life. One student told his younger friend all about what he was learning after each class and reported that the younger friend was carrying his inhaler with him more when they played together. Results from Dr. Kintner’s program? I haven’t seen data from the study, but when viewing results “up close and personal” next to a child who is learning to take control of his condition, IMPRESSIVE.

9.  Sarah Hill said on Oct. 19, 2011

I pulled a lot of great asthma info off to share with my niece when she asked me what her asthma meant. The internet is a great resource, as long as you get your info from credible sites.

10.  S Parker said on March 27, 2012

My 5 year old daughter came home one day from school and was having an asthma attack. I grabbed the nebulizer and started the breathing treatment. I wondered why I hadn’t been called from someone at the school so I could care for her. I asked how long she had been this way. She answered most of the day. Why can’t we have people located with in the schools who are qualified to recognize these matters? Of course, I had a talk with the principle and the teacher. They seemed oblivious to asthma symptoms and seemed not to be much of a concern! We live in a rural area where there seems to be a lot of asthma. We need this type of education for not only the students but also the staff. I am a Respiratory Therapist. So, therefore, it’s a big conern to see these little ones have to suffer when something can be done to help them.