It’s Back to School for Asthma, Too

Nathalie Raffier

September 15, 2023

PARIS — The years go by, and nothing much changes: the first 2 weeks of the new school year have brought with them a rise in emergency department (ED) admissions for asthma in patients under age 15 years. A more relaxed approach to maintenance therapy for the condition over the summer holidays, exposure to allergens at school, and the surge in viral respiratory infections that accompanies the return to group settings explain this trend, which can be foreseen.

As soon as September begins, asthma cases increase rapidly in children. According to Public Health France, which has just relaunched its epidemiological monitoring, these cases reach their peak around 2 weeks after the start of the new term.

In its first weekly review on August 22, 2023, the authority reported a slight uptick in cases in its Indian Ocean overseas departments, and the calm before the storm in mainland France.

Last year, between weeks 35 and 36, the increases were 82% for SOS Médecins (the French home doctor visit service), 169% for EDs, and 33% for hospital admissions.

These data are similar to the figures obtained over the past 3 years. The authors of this monitoring, using the SurSaUD system, France’s program for monitoring emergency cases and deaths, attribute these increases to the surge in viral respiratory infections seen after the return to group settings after the school summer holidays.

Indeed, viral-induced exacerbations are mostly caused by rhinoviruses, which circulate throughout the year, but more so during the autumn and winter months. These are probably the main culprits behind the epidemics seen once schools have reopened. Yet relaxation of maintenance asthma treatment (inhaled corticosteroids alone or in combination with long-acting bronchodilators) during the summer holidays also plays a significant role in this yearly recurrence.

Compliance Ends With School

Flore Amat, MD, PhD, pediatric respiratory and allergy specialist and coordinating doctor at the Zephyr asthma clinic (Robert-Debré Hospital, Paris Public Hospitals, Paris, France) acknowledges, "The summer holidays are often a time when compliance with maintenance therapy is relaxed." Aware of this fact, doctors prefer to strike a deal with their young patients. "For some of our young and teenage asthma patients, we support their relaxed approach to medication during the summer holidays," she admits. "In July and August, there are fewer viruses circulating, and the weather is often dry, which limits the risk of an asthma attack, meaning we can ease off the maintenance therapy, or even stop taking it altogether. We tell parents and children to start taking them again 2 weeks before school starts; 2 weeks being the minimum time needed for inhaled corticosteroids to start taking effect again." Unsurprisingly, some forget to do so or simply don’t.

Two other things contribute to the rise in asthma attacks in children in early September. The first relates to exposure to allergens, especially dust mites. "Ninety percent of asthmatic children are allergic," said Frédéric le Guillou, MD, respiratory medicine specialist and chair of the French Society for Respiratory Health, an organization aimed at patients and healthcare professionals. "Don’t forget that asthma is the leading chronic condition in childhood, with a prevalence estimated at between 8% and 10% of children and adolescents. So, we’re talking about considerable numbers of children being affected."

Although dust mites are a year-round problem, their peak period of reproduction mainly occurs during the wetter months (March to April and September to November). This means that there is a risk of relapse in asthmatic children who are allergic to dust mites when school starts again after the summer holidays. "In such children, any signs of unmanageable allergic rhinitis should be examined," said Amat, "these signs being permanent nasal congestion, runny nose, et cetera."

Finally, we can also add "the stress and anxiety generated by the school setting and settling back into a routine" to the list of likely explanations for this peak in asthma attacks, Amat concluded.

Check-Up Time

Children and teenagers with asthma should have a check-up with their respiratory medicine specialist at the start of the new term to confirm that their condition is under control and to determine whether any changes need to be made to their maintenance therapy. "Looking back at previous Septembers and winters is informative in adapting a patient’s treatment plan," said Amat. "If maintenance therapy has been stopped during the summer, take the opportunity to represcribe it or modify it if, for example, the dose of inhaled corticosteroids has not been enough to prevent attacks in years gone by. Adequate control of symptoms over the summer months suggests that treatment should be bolstered with preventive therapy to cope with the autumn and winter months. Finally, the factors aggravating poor management of asthma should be dealt with, such as intranasal antihistamines and corticosteroids in allergic rhinitis, specific immunotherapy in patients with controlled asthma but with significant allergy symptoms."

The start-of-term visit to the doctor’s office is also the perfect opportunity to carry out respiratory function testing (RFT), if this has not been done for over a year in patients whose asthma is well managed. "RFT is indicated in the 3 months following any changes to maintenance therapy, every 3 to 6 months in patients with poorly controlled asthma, and after stopping maintenance therapy or when considering stopping treatment permanently or for an extended period of time," noted Amat.

The distinction between difficult asthma (suboptimal treatment plan, poor compliance, persisting allergen exposure, etc) and severe asthma may be made during this back-to-school asthma review. In specialist clinics, children with severe asthma (not controlled by combined treatment with maximum-dose corticosteroids and maximum-dose bronchodilators) may, like adults, benefit from some biotherapies. These are largely available for children aged 6 years and up (the anti-IgE antibody omalizumab, the anti-IL-5 monoclonal antibody mepolizumab, and the anti-IL-4 antibody dupilumab, are for use in patients with severe asthma with hypereosinophilic syndrome with or without allergies) or 12 years and up for tezepelumab (anti-TSLP antibody). Benralizumab (anti-IL-5 antibody) only has marketing authorizatoin for adults.

Commentary From Madiha Ellaffi, MD, Respiratory Medicine Specialist
When children experience relatively calm summers without seasonal summer allergies to certain pollens or molds (such as Alternaria, some grasses, etc) that require maintenance therapy to be continued, we know full well that compliance is often left up to the child. What would be better would be striking a "deal" with these young people: maintenance treatment can be stopped over the summer, providing that their usual dose is quite low or their asthma is considered mild to moderate, but it must be restarted before going back to school in September. An action plan should be discussed in the event of an asthma attack, and treatment bolstered to overcome this hurdle, should it occur, such as double inhaled corticosteroid doses, etc. Indeed, this period is conducive to asthma exacerbations due to stress, the return of students to confined classrooms, pollutants released by the deep cleaning of school buildings that occurs at the start of term (particularly the release of volatile organic compounds that irritate the airways), and the lack of ventilation in classrooms, which is conducive to the spread of viruses that can cause worsening asthma symptoms. I’d also like to remind parents of the importance of detecting early symptoms (such as wheezing, cough, bronchitis, itchy throat and nose, etc) in warding off asthma attacks or severe symptoms. I insist on basic measures, such as nasal irrigation, treating allergic rhinitis, which can exacerbate asthma, and ensuring good habits at home to prevent dust mites and mold, such as vacuuming, airing houses, etc. It is sensible to assess the risk of asthma attacks at the start of term according to the child’s allergy profile and their previous history, like starting treatment for allergic rhinitis if not already being taken.


This article was translated from Medscape's French edition.


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