Common Colds and Asthma

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Box of tissuesMADISON – How often do young children develop colds in the winter?
Parents can expect their pre-school youngsters to come down with six to 10 colds between December and April, says UW Health pediatric pulmonologist Theresa Guilbert. Common cold viruses - rhinovirus (RV) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) - are often the culprit.
“It’s normal for kids to get sick, with a runny nose and a mild cough, nearly every other week during the cold season, especially if they are in daycare where they can be exposed to these viruses,” Guilbert says.
The good news is that colds occurring early in children’s lives may help strengthen their immune systems.
But in some high-risk youngsters - most often those with a family history of allergies and asthma - exposure to the viruses can lead to worse symptoms that can be problematic in the future.
“Children who exhibit significant wheezing and coughing episodes following exposure to RV and RSV are more likely to develop asthma later in life,” Guilbert says. “The virus may cause or worsen swelling and inflammation in the lower airways and lungs that leads to asthma symptoms.”
The significant wheezing and coughing symptoms make it hard for the children to catch their breath, so they may breathe more rapidly, use additional chest muscles or make a grunting sound with each breath. The sick kids may be uninterested in drinking or eating and may be fussy and difficult to console, she says.
About 30 percent of the children who are exposed to RSV will experience respiratory difficulty. In about one to five percent of the infected children, severe lower airway blockage occurs that may necessitate the use of oxygen and, in rare cases, assisted ventilation in the hospital.
Guilbert, who practices at American Family Children’s Hospital, and her colleagues in the UW Asthma and Pulmonary Clinical Research group are actively investigating the link between colds and asthma, hoping to clarify if there is a cause-and-effect relationship.
“Were these kids just waiting for the virus to come along to show us that they have this underlying predisposition to asthma in their lungs?” Guilbert and other clinicians wonder. “Or did the virus actually cause this damage?”
Clinical trials must be conducted to answer these questions and understand what the exact mechanism may be that causes asthma following virus exposure. Guilbert’s research, which focuses on RSV, aims to determine if a genetic factor may be involved.
“If we could find a gene that impacts the way the children respond to RSV,” she says, “we could better understand this relationship between RSV and asthma.”
As for prevention of RSV infection, Guilbert prescribes a monthly antibody injection to strengthen immunity and lower the severity of response in very-high-risk children, particularly premature infants. And some parents may choose to keep susceptible children away from potential contacts that may be infected, she says.
Otherwise, since the viruses are transmitted through the air or in droplets, the usual precautions apply: washing hands, cleaning surfaces, covering mouths.

Date Published: 12/28/2007

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