Asthma can turn deadly in rare cases

The death of 13-year-old Broadway star Laurel Griggs is a tragic reminder of how serious asthma can be.

Laurel battled asthma for about two years, her father Andrew Griggs told CNN. Though Laurel would seem fine for months at a time, her father said he constantly took her for medical checkups. Last Tuesday, Laurel suffered an asthma attack and her family took her to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Within two hours of the attack, Laurel went into cardiac arrest and died.

“I think everybody did everything they could,” her father said. “It just comes so suddenly.”

Laurel was one of the more than 26 million people in the United States who have asthma — and about 6 million of them are children.

How asthma attacks happen

While most parents see asthma as a major cause of missed time from school and work, some might not realize that severe asthma attacks, which require emergency room visits and hospitalizations, can be fatal. Still, deaths due to asthma are rare.

About 10 people die from asthma each day in the United States. In 2017, the year with the most recent national data, 185 children and 3,379 adults in the United States died due to asthma, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Asthma, a chronic disease that affects the lungs, can cause symptoms of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing at night or early in the morning. The exact cause of asthma remains unknown, but genetic, environmental and occupational factors have been linked to developing the condition.

Asthma can begin at any age, but it is estimated that most children experience their first symptom by age 5.

An asthma attack occurs when those symptoms worsen and the body’s airways shrink, making it more difficult to breathe.

“Asthma is the inability to get air out due to inflammation and narrowing of your airways for important gas exchange — trading carbon dioxide for oxygen — that your body needs to oxygenate your body,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health in New York and a spokesperson for the Allergy and Asthma Network.

“Carbon dioxide builds up in your blood and can cause you to stop breathing,” she said. “Without appropriate oxygen multiple vital organs fail such as your brain and heart.”

Certain triggers, such as smoke, dust, allergies, infections or physical exercise can cause an asthma attack. While avoiding triggers can help prevent an attack, medications can help control symptoms.

Signs of ‘uncontrolled asthma’

“Most deaths from asthma come from uncontrolled asthma. Make sure your asthma is always well controlled by having your child on the correct preventative medications. Seeing an asthma specialist such as pulmonologist or allergist can also help,” Parikh said.

“Signs of uncontrolled asthma can sneak up on you, so be sure to know the symptoms of it: waking up at night, using your quick relief inhaler more than twice a week, needing oral or injected steroids one to two times per year, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath — all of these are signs your asthma is not controlled,” she said.

There are two types of medicine: quick relief and long-term control.

“Quick-relief medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. If you need to use your quick-relief medicines more and more, you should visit your doctor or other medical professional to see if you need a different medicine,” according to the CDC. “Long-term control medicines help you have fewer and milder attacks, but they don’t help you if you’re having an asthma attack.”

With a doctor’s help, asthma can be controlled and parents can talk to their children with asthma about how to manage their symptoms and take medication, if or when needed.

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Monica Haider and Melissa Gray contributed to this report.