Do you wheeze or sneeze from asthma or hay fever? If so, you're not alone. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 4.8 million children suffer from asthma in the United States. Of those, 790,000 are between the ages of 5 and 14. And more than 6 million kids experience the sneezes and runny noses that go with allergic rhinitis (the medical name for hay fever.)

Asthma attacks and other allergic reactions can make kids feel pretty awful. In fact, it is one of the leading reasons for kids' absences from school, causing a total of 10 millions days missed each year, according to the American Lung Association.

The Lung Association also notes that asthma is the most common chronic illness among children, and the number of kids affected is growing. Experts are not sure why that is happening, but they think it might be due to poor medical care and education, worsening air pollution or the fact that people are spending more time indoors.

Asthma affects your respiratory system--your lungs and the other parts of your body that you use to breathe. Symptoms include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath. An attack can be mild or severe--and a severe one can be very dangerous.

Asthma attacks occur when sensitive people come into contact with "triggers," which can include dust, pollen, animal dander, dust and dust mites (tiny bugs that live in dust), certain food products and medicines, smoke and various household products.

The wheezing and tightness that come with asthma may also be triggered by respiratory infections such as colds or the flu, and by exercise.

The fact that so many children have asthma, especially in inner-city neighborhoods, is raising concern among doctors. This month, the National Medical Association, a group representing about 20,000 African American doctors, published a special supplement to its medical journal.

"We need to emphasize awareness of asthma in the African American community," says Michael A. LeNoir, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and editor of the special asthma publication. "Our physicians need to be better trained to effectively treat asthma."

LeNoir says U.S. doctors and public health officials need to make the treatment of asthma a major public health effort. Although there are several effective drugs now available to treat the illness, LeNoir says getting the medications can be a problem for many people.

Asthma can be scary, but it's important to remember that it can be treated and managed. Taking care of asthma is something that has to be done every day, usually with medication in the form of pills and inhalers. People with asthma may have to make lifestyle changes to help them avoid triggers such as dust, pet fur and cigarette smoke.

If you have asthma, you, your family and your school will have to work as a team to help keep you as healthy as possible. Although missing school days once in a while might sound like fun, having asthma attacks is not.

Tips for Parents

If your child has asthma or allergies, inform the school staff and let them know what your child's triggers may be. If symptoms flare up at school, it may be the result of exposure to allergens such as animal dander brought in on the clothing of pet-owning classmates or mold growth in the school building. Try to understand when and where symptoms worsen and work with the school to implement control measures, suggests the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI). Find out if your child's school allows students to keep inhalants in their possession. If your child has exercise-induced asthma, make sure that coaches and gym teachers are familiar with the condition and know your doctor's recommendations about pre-treatment and acute or emergency response. The AAAAI provides a variety of services for families of children with allergies and asthma. For more information, check their Web site, www.aaaai.org, or call 1-800-822-2762 for a list of brochures and referrals to specialists in your area. If there are younger kids in your house, ask about the "Just For Kids" coloring book. The American Lung Association is also an excellent source of information and support. Call 1-800-586-4872.

For You to Do

Did you know that an increased rate of asthma has been reported in children whose mothers smoke? No one should smoke in the home of an asthmatic person. Smoking harms everyone, but it is especially irritating to the lungs of someone with asthma. Start your own effort to clear the air. Create a poster that warns people not to smoke around children or someone who has asthma.