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It’s back to school for asthma, too


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 Aug. 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) acknowledged, “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 admitted. “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 health care 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 Dr. 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, Dr. Amat concluded.


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