As a New Mom, I Struggled With My Daughter's Chronic Cough

Soon after Kelly Harmsen’s daughter, Chrysa, was born, the coughing started. She seemed to have croup in infancy and then developed persistent—and sometimes scary—coughing bouts as a preschooler. Winters in their hometown of Chicago were particularly tough; Chrysa struggled to breathe with every weather change and was rushed to the hospital more than once. It wasn’t until Chrysa was 6 years old that Harmsen found out the real diagnosis: asthma. Then her son, Joshua, started to show symptoms; he was diagnosed with asthma at just 15 months. Now this 43-year-old mom, a founder of Bjort & Company and creator of The Eye Patch Kids DVD, lives with her husband, Chrysa, 13, and Joshua, 8, in Bradenton, Fla. The move, plus the right medication, helps keep the children’s asthma under control. Harmsen’s one regret? That she didn’t know more about asthma sooner.

My daughter always seemed to be sick as a baby. I thought she had the croup because she would often wake up in the middle of the night with a barking cough. But it got worse. We lived in Chicago, and whenever the weather changed—from hot to cold or even vice versa—she would develop a persistent, phlegmy-sounding cough.

It made me feel scared and powerless. She just kept getting sick, and I didnt know why. Sometimes her coughing was so bad she struggled to breathe. Three or four times it was so frightening that I had my husband call an ambulance.

I took her to the doctor, but the pediatrician just kept giving her cough medicine; the problem was never really solved. It wasnt until she was 6 years old that an allergist diagnosed her with asthma. Tests showed that she was allergic to dust and animal dander, and we found out that cold air also triggered her asthma. She started taking Singulair once a day, which helps prevent asthma attacks by blocking the chemicals that the body releases in response to asthma triggers. She also started using an inhaler to take Flovent, a corticosteroid drug that reduces the underlying lung inflammation that causes asthma. During allergy season, we alternated antihistamines—Claritin and Zyrtec—to keep seasonal allergies from triggering an attack.

At the time, some of my family members had moved to Florida. We would leave Chicago to visit for a few days, usually during spring break from school. At that time of year, Chrysa would often be having breathing troubles, possibly due to spring pollen or respiratory infections. We found that after four or five days in Florida, shed be healthy again. Then within a week of going back up north, shed be at the doctor again with some kind of chest problem.

My son Joshuas case of asthma was a little different. He was born with a lot of food allergies, including to dairy products. (He would often vomit after drinking milk.) The pediatrician suggested an allergist for his food problems, but also because he was worried about a rattling sound in his chest. The doctor thought he might have cystic fibrosis, a potentially life-threatening genetic disease.

When tests at age 15 months showed he actually had asthma, I was relieved. I had the experience of dealing with Chrysas breathing problems, so I knew we could handle Joshuas.

We switched him to soy milk, which helped. And the doctor prescribed a bronchodilator, which relaxes airways, to be given three times a day with a nebulizer, a machine that delivers aerosolized medication directly to the lungs. Even though it was really helpful, it was almost impossible to get a baby to sit still with a mask on his face for 20 minutes to inhale the medicine. What helped most was keeping him away from the food that triggered his allergies. They seemed to encourage the buildup of extra fluid in his lungs, which would always progress to something worse, like an infection or even bronchitis.

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As told to: Sarah Klein
Last Updated: August 01, 2009

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