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.

Next Page: The move to Florida was a big help
[ pagebreak ]The move to Florida was a big help
Then about four and a half years ago, we moved to Bradenton. We wanted to be closer to family, but we also knew our kids would be healthier in this climate. Since weve lived here, neither of my kids have had any bronchitis or pneumonia or anything. They both have bronchodilator inhalers that can be used to open up the airways quickly, but theyve only used them about three or four times since weve been here. If theres a big drop in the temperature, Ill make them take it before bed. Just hearing the way they cough can tell me if we are in for serious lung trouble.

We dont really know the doctors that well because we havent had to go that often. In Chicago, my kids were using once-a-day Singulair pills; an inhaler for corticosteroids, like Flovent, to fight underlying lung inflammation; and the occasional inhaler with a bronchodilator, such as albuterol, to open up airways if they were coughing or having other symptoms. My bathroom cabinet looked like a pharmacy. Now, they hardly need to take anything.

They both take Singulair once a day, but neither is on any corticosteroids. Joshua has grown out of his food allergies, except an allergy to peanuts. They are both still allergic to dust, but our house in Florida has no carpeting. That means its easy to mop the floors and theres nowhere for dust to accumulate.

However, we know the asthma isnt completely gone. Just a couple of months ago, Chrysa had an incident after spending a night at the house of a relative with a dog. She had difficulty breathing to the point where she had to stay home from school the next day, but we were able to control her symptoms with a bronchodilator inhaler and cough medicine. It never progressed to the point where she needed to see a doctor.

We do avoid zoos or farms because exposure to animal dander is still a problem. But exercise and temperature changes dont seem to trigger their asthma; even when its 90 degrees out and 100% humidity, theyll be running around like any other children.

I wish I knew more about asthma sooner
Ive lived with asthma for years now, and I know all the triggers and symptoms that mean danger is brewing. If my children get the sniffles, I feel like I can practically predict the future—and I have the tools and medication to prevent something bad from happening.

But I do have one regret. I wish I had the knowledge and medication back in the early days, when I felt so powerless. I remember putting Chrysa to bed when her breathing sounded funny, and knowing we were going to have trouble that night. However, I didnt know what to do about it. It was a terrifying feeling; I was a new mom who was constantly worried about her childs ability to breathe and whether we would have to call an ambulance in the night. I wish I had known Chrysa had asthma at an earlier age. I feel so much more powerful as a parent because of my ability to control this disease and take proper care of them now.

Sure, Chrysa struggles a little with her asthma, particularly when she cant go visit a friend who has a dog or has to miss a party at the zoo. I always remind her that things could be much worse—some kids with asthma cant even go outside and play. I try to help them both see that you can live a great life with asthma.