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Theresa Blount, who coordinates Vidant’s Pediatric Asthma Program, demonstrates how a rescue inhaler and spacer deliver medication into the lungs.

Asthma is a common condition among children, especially in Pitt County. Here, 15 percent of school students are diagnosed with asthma, a higher rate than the state average.

Asthma can be a vexing condition for children. It’s caused by swelling of the airways that can lead to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. A rescue inhaler provides quick relief when an asthma episode occurs.

Far too often, students with asthma miss days of school and don’t feel well enough to take part in school activities. Occasionally, some require 911 trips to the hospital. For this reason, Vidant Health’s Pediatric Asthma Program gives students, parents and school personnel a deeper understanding of how to live well — and breathe better — with asthma.

A key factor is being prepared, said Theresa Blount, a nurse who is coordinator of the program. The first step is to have the child’s primary care provider complete an asthma action plan and a medication authorization form. These are required by Pitt County Schools as well as most other school districts, and allow school personnel to give asthma medication when needed. They also allow students to use their personal inhaler and spacer, which work together to deliver puffs of medication into the lungs in just the right dose.

“It’s very important to have their forms and medication at school at all times,” Blount said. “It’s the best way to prevent a child from being in distress for an extended length of time.” It keeps parents from being called to bring the inhaler to school. In worst-case scenarios, it can prevent a rescue squad trip to the emergency department.

However, last fall only about 32 percent of elementary school students in Pitt County who have asthma had their forms, inhaler and spacer on file at their school, Blount said. To address this problem, she and her team collaborated with the school health program to conduct “asthma blitz days” in the schools. Their efforts increased the number of elementary students fully prepared with their forms, inhaler and spacer on file to 46 percent. Other school systems are following their lead, she said.

Inhalers and spacers are expensive for some families, especially those who don’t have insurance, Blount said. Children’s Miracle Network grant funds, administered through the Vidant Health Foundation, help cover the cost for some.

Unfortunately, some parents use their child’s inhaler because they can’t afford their own. Some children share inhalers with their siblings. A typical inhaler has 200 puffs, which may not be enough to share with others.

Like many other conditions that afflict children, asthma is affected by social determinants of health — the circumstances that exist where they live, learn and play. The Pediatric Asthma team visits homes — if invited — to assess the conditions that may aggravate asthma, such as cigarette smoke, strong odors, mold and kerosene heaters. They advise the parents of ways these triggers can make asthma worse and what they can do about them.

The team’s efforts have been strengthened by partnerships with The Brody School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health and with Legal Aid of North Carolina. In addition, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC Foundation has provided grant funding. This Medical Legal Partnership is the first east of I-95.

Together these three organizations are working to help children with asthma identify and avoid triggers that make their symptoms worse. They are able to help families with housing issues from hurricane damage, food insecurities, benefit eligibility and other detriments to health. The goal is to ensure that all children with asthma can breathe easier – and so can their parents.

To learn more about pediatric asthma, call 252-847-6835 or email tpblount@vidanthealth.com