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Can I Sue for Medical Malpractice Involving Asthma Treatment?

Top 6 Questions Patients Ask about Asthma

June 11, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its grip on global public health, World Asthma Day, on May 5, passed with little fanfare, as the Global Initiative for Asthma postponed its public awareness campaign “until the time seems appropriate.”

But to be clear: Asthma is still a serious long-term disease where timely and appropriate treatment can potentially mean the difference between life and death. In 2018, 24.75 million people in the U.S. suffered from asthma, including 5.5 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC). That year, there were 3,441 deaths from asthma, including 3,248 adults and 192 children.

The dangers of asthma made national headlines in November when child star Laurel Griggs died at age 13 after suffering what her grandfather described on Facebook as a “massive asthma attack.” According to news reports, Griggs had been battling asthma for two years. The young star made her Broadway debut at age 6 in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and went on to join the cast of Tony award-winning musical “Once” in addition to performing in commercials, television shows, film, and two episodes of “Saturday Night Live” before her life was tragically cut short.

With so much at stake, here is what you must know about the treatment and management of asthma and what to do when doctors make medical errors that impact your health.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways to the lungs become narrow, inflamed and swollen and produce thick mucus. This can make breathing difficult. Asthma affects people of all ages, but often starts during childhood. There is no cure for asthma, but with proper treatment it can be controlled.

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Symptoms of asthma include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing, especially at night or early morning
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing, which causes a whistling sound when you exhale

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may happen infrequently or daily.

What Happens During an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack is an episode where symptoms get significantly worse. Attacks can occur suddenly and may be life threatening.

In normal breathing, the airways to the lungs are fully open, and air freely moves in and out of the lungs. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways tighten, a condition known as bronchospasm. The lining of the airways becomes swollen and inflamed. Mucus production increases and clogs the airways.

These changes to the airways make it difficult for the patient to breathe. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America describes the experience of an asthma attack as “like trying to breathe through a straw stuffed with cotton.”

People with severe asthma are most at risk for asthma attacks.

How Is Asthma Treated?

Every case of asthma is different, and your doctor will create an individualized treatment plan. Generally, people who have asthma are treated with daily medicine for long-term control, along with medicine for short-term relief during an asthma attack or when symptoms worsen.

Medicines for asthma control include:

  • Inhaled Corticosteroids to reduce the body’s inflammatory response. Corticosteroids may also be given by mouth for short periods if asthma symptoms worsen.
  • Biologic medicines, given by injection every few weeks, to target specific parts of the body’s response to allergens.
  • Leukotriene modifiers to allow the airways to open and reduce inflammation. These medicines are taken in pill or liquid form.
  • Mast cell stabilizers to help prevent airway inflammation caused by exposure to allergens or other triggers. These medicines stop certain immune cells from releasing the signals that cause inflammation.
  • Inhaled long-acting beta2-agonists (LABAs) to keep the airways open by preventing their narrowing. LABAs may be added to inhaled corticosteroids to reduce narrowing and inflammation.

Medicines for short-term asthma relief include:

  • Inhaled short-acting beta2-agonists (SABAs) to quickly relax tight muscles around the airways.
  • Oral and intravenous (IV) corticosteroids to reduce inflammation caused by severe asthma symptoms.
  • Short-acting anticholinergics to help open the airways quickly. This medicine may be less effective than SABAs, but it is an option for people who may have side effects from SABAs.

In cases of severe asthma where other treatments are not working, a bronchial thermoplasty may be recommended. This procedure is performed under moderate sedation or light anesthesia and is minimally invasive. A doctor enters the airways through the mouth with a bronchoscope and applies heat to the muscles along the airways to make them thinner and help prevent constriction. A full course of bronchial thermoplasty consists of three separate out-patient procedures, each addressing a different area of the lungs.

How Is an Asthma Emergency Treated?

During a severe asthma attack, patients may be given oxygen therapy or breathing assistance, either through a tube inserted in the airway or through noninvasive ventilation, which uses a mask with forced air that covers the face to support breathing in addition to medications, such as those listed above.

What Should I Do If I Believe I (Or a Loved One) Has Been Injured by a Doctor’s Failure to Properly Treat Asthma?

When doctors, nurses or other medical practitioners fail to adhere to well-established standards of care, asthma can become a life-and-death situation very quickly. If you believe you or a loved one has been injured due to a healthcare provider’s failure to timely and appropriately treat asthma, it is important to consult with an attorney immediately to ensure that your legal rights are protected.

“Asthma is a treatable disease, and all cases where serious injury or death occurs as a result of an asthma attack should be examined for possible medical negligence,” said John M. Dodig, a partner at Feldman Shepherd who has litigated medical malpractice cases arising from the failure by healthcare professionals to properly treat asthma. “My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a loved one to an asthma tragedy that could have been prevented.”

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