Asthma—that dangerous wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest that affects some 17.5 million adults and 7.1 million children in the U.S.—is on the rise, according to CDC statistics. Since 1980, the number of children with asthma has more than doubled, but scientists and doctors are still debating the cause.
Dr. Jeffrey Gatz, MD, doctor of internal medicine and pediatrics with St. Anthony Health in Valparaiso, says that his office has many child patients with asthma, and causes are difficult to determine. "We've always seen a lot of asthma, and I don't know if anybody knows the cause," Gatz says. "People have talked about environmental causes, such as air quality, and we have seen cases of mold exposure where the child is wheezing like crazy. But most of the time, we don't know why the asthma occurs, and we think it is likely [due to] multiple factors."
Dr. Kenneth Blumenthal, DO, an allergy and asthma specialist with Allergy Asthma Care, P.C., says he often is asked what causes the increase in asthma rates. "The jury is still out why, and there are different theories," Dr. Blumenthal says. "There is a very low incidence of asthma in underdeveloped third world countries, compared to western cultures like the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. They think this is because our immune system, by nature, through thousands of years of development, has learned to fight off infestation with bacteria. But today we use antibacterial soap, antibacterial cleaners, and antibiotics, so we have created a sterile, clean environment. But we still have a system designed to fight and so these systems are hypersensitive and overreact. There also has been some research about vitamin D and deficiencies in the role of allergies and asthma. It's all emerging."
But there is one good side to the increase in asthma cases, and that is the technology to respond to these cases. "There is no doubt there is an increase in asthma, but there are fewer people dying and less hospitalization, and it's probably because there is better care," Blumenthal says. "We treat it with anti-inflammatory medication on an ongoing basis, so we have gotten better in terms of preventing a lot of the complications from asthma. There are still 4,200 deaths a year, but that's down from 5,000 a few years ago."