Doctors using helium to help asthma patients

Asthma -- 23-million adults and 9-million kids suffer from it.

The wheezing, coughing, suffocating -- a severe attack can kill.

Now, doctors are turning to helium to help people breathe easier.

It's been a rough start for Emery, trouble breathing stressed his heart. Now doctors are using helium to help.

When doctors coat the airways with a mixture of helium and oxygen it creates a smooth pathway for the air to travel.

"Air moves in and out very easily," explains Doctor James Swift of the Sunrise Children's Hospital in Las Vegas.

Air flows through lungs like water in a stream -- rocks cause turbulence -- those rocks are like the mucus in your lungs, blocking air flow.

"That helium layers out and allows the oxygen and the CO2 to get in and out of the airways in a much more efficient manner," Doctor Swift adds.

Asthma attacks sent 13-year-old Zach Hibbert to the emergency room several times, making it tough for him even to play with his dogs.

"Looking at him, he looked a little blue around the lips and I knew there was a problem," says Zach's dad Alfredo.

During his last attack, Zach was put on helium for a few days. His breathing returned to normal, and he's been good to go ever since.

Doctor Swift says the worst cases of asthma are often in kids five to 18 and if not treated, some cases can lead to heart failure.

REPORT: MB #2999


According to the American Lung Association, asthma is the most common chronic disorder among children. It currently affects an estimated 6.8 million children under the age of 18. Although asthma rarely leads to death, age increases the risk of death associated with the disorder. In fact, 684 adults over the age of 85 died from asthma in 2004, the last year for which data is available. Death from asthma is almost always preventable. Asthma takes place when the bronchial airways become over-reactive and produce an excessive amount of mucus, swelling and muscle contraction. These reactions cause obstruction of the airway, tightness in the chest, coughing and wheezing. If severe, these symptoms can lead to shortness of breath and low levels of oxygen in the blood.


Experts say inflammation of the airways is the most common cause of asthma, and that inflammation is most often caused by allergies, viral respiratory infections and airborne irritants like cigarette smoke. The American Lung Association says more than 50 percent of current asthma cases are linked to allergies, especially cat allergies. Recent research shows children of smokers are twice as likely to develop asthma as children on nonsmokers. In addition, children of women who smoke less than 10 cigarettes per day during pregnancy are 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with asthma by age seven. Research also shows asthma is partly genetic in nature. If one parent has asthma, a child has a one in three chance of developing the condition. If both parents have asthma, those chances increase to seven in 10, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.


Medications used to treat asthma can be for long-term control, for quick relief or for the allergies that trigger an asthma attack. The combination of these types of drugs varies from person to person. Long-term medications for asthma include inhaled corticosteroids like fluticasone (Flovent Diskus) and triamcinolone (Azmacort). The Mayo Clinic says unlike oral corticosteroids, these inhaled medications are considered relatively low-risk for side effects when used long-term. Other long-term medications prescribed to treat asthma are called bronchodilators because they open the airways and reduce inflammation. These include formoterol (Foradil Aerolizer), montelukast (Singulair) and theophyilline. Medications used for quick relief during an asthma attack include bronchodilators called short-acting beta-2 agonists, an inhaled medication that relaxes the airways called ipratropium, and corticosteroids administered orally or by IV.


A more recently developed rescue treatment for asthma attacks is a mixture of helium and oxygen. This type of treatment is administered in the emergency room, and it works by allowing air to move more swiftly though an airway that's constricted by an asthma attack. "We can have the patients inhale a mixture of oxygen and helium," James Swift, M.D., a pediatric intensive care physician at Sunrise Children's Hospital in Las Vegas, Nev., told Ivanhoe. "That helium layers out and allows the oxygen and the CO2 to get in and out of the airways in a much more efficient manner." He has had children on the treatment, called Heliox, for up to three days at a time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT: Ashley Seymour Public Relations Sunrise Children's Hospital Las Vegas, NV (702) 731-8288

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