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Children’s anxiety during asthma exacerbations linked to better outcomes



Experiencing panic-fear during asthma exacerbations predicted several beneficial outcomes in Mexican and Puerto Rican children with asthma, according to new research.

Jonathan M. Feldman, PhD, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, New York Tara Haelle/MDedge News

Dr. Jonathan M. Feldman

“When kids are anxious specifically during their asthma attacks, that can be a good thing because it means that they’re more vigilant,” lead author Jonathan M. Feldman, PhD, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and of Yeshiva University in the New York said in an interview. “They may be more likely to react during the early stages of an attack, and they may be more likely to be using self-management strategies at home and using their controller medications on a daily basis.”

He said pediatric providers can ask their patients with asthma how they feel during asthma attacks, such as whether they ever feel scared or worried.

“If a kid says no, not at all, then I would be concerned as a provider because they may not be paying attention to their asthma symptoms and they may not be taking it seriously,” Dr. Feldman said.

Past research has suggested that “illness-specific panic-fear” – the amount of anxiety someone experiences during asthma exacerbations – helps adults develop adaptive asthma management strategies, so Dr. Feldman and his colleagues examined the phenomenon as a potential protective factor in children. They shared their findings at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.

The research focused on Puerto Rican (n = 79) and Mexican (n = 188) children because of the substantial disparity in asthma prevalence and control between these two different Latino populations. Puerto Rican children have the highest asthma prevalence and morbidity among American children, whereas Mexican children have the lowest rates.

The 267 participants, aged 5-12 years, included 110 children from two inner-city hospitals in the New York and 157 children from two school-based health clinics and a Breathmobile in Phoenix. Nearly all the Arizona children were Mexican, and most (71%) of the Bronx children were Puerto Rican.

The authors collected the following measures at baseline and at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months follow-up: spirometry (forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV1]), Childhood Asthma Control Test (CACT) for children 5-11 years old, the Asthma Control Test (ACT) for 12-year-olds, adherence to inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), and acute health care utilizations (clinic sick visits, ED visits, and hospitalizations).

The authors also queried patients on four illness-specific panic-fear measures from the Childhood Asthma Symptoms Checklist: how often they felt frightened, panicky, afraid of being alone, and afraid of dying during an asthma attack (Likert 1-5 scale).

Mexican children reported higher levels of illness-specific panic-fear at the start of the study. They also tended to have lower severity of asthma, better asthma control, and better adherence to ICS, compared with Puerto Rican children.

Also at baseline, the Mexican children’s caregivers tended to be younger, poorer, and more likely to be married and to speak Spanish. The Puerto Rican caregivers, on the other hand, had a higher educational level, including 61% high school graduates, and had more depressive symptoms on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D).

One-year data revealed several links between baseline reports of panic-fear and better outcomes. Mexican children who reported experiencing panic-fear at baseline were more likely to have higher FEV1 measures at 1 year of follow-up than were those who didn’t experience panic-fear (P = .02). Similarly, Puerto Rican children initially reporting panic-fear had better asthma control at 1 year, compared with those who didn’t report panic-fear (P = .007).

The researchers reported their effect sizes in terms of predicted variance in a model that accounted for the child’s age, sex, asthma duration, asthma severity, social support, acculturation, health care provider relationship, and number of family members with asthma. The model also factored in the caregiver’s age, sex, marital status, poverty level, education, and depressive symptoms.

For example, in their model, experiencing panic-fear accounted for 67% of the variance in FEV1 levels in Mexican children and 53% of the variance in asthma control in Puerto Rican children.

Less acute health care utilization also was associated with children’s baseline levels of illness-specific panic-fear. In the model, 12% of the variance in acute health care utilization among Mexican children (P = .03) and 41% of the variance among Puerto Rican children (P = .02) was explained by child-reported panic-fear. No association was seen with medication adherence.

Although caregivers’ reports of children feeling panic-fear were linked to better FEV1 outcomes in Mexican children (P = .02), the association was only slightly significant in Puerto Rican children (P = .05). Caregiver reports of children’s panic-fear were not associated with asthma control, acute health care utilization, or medication adherence.

“Providers should be aware that anxiety focused on asthma may be beneficial and facilitate adaptive asthma management strategies,” the authors concluded.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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