Although African Americans only represent about 13 percent of the population, we account for 26 percent of all asthma deaths. Our rate of asthma is higher than any other racial or ethnic group, and we experience more asthma-related hospitalization and emergency room visits.

Although doctors don’t know what causes asthma—it’s an inflammation of the airways leading to the lungs that’s marked by coughing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing—they do know that asthma and allergies are linked. In fact, allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma in the United States. Many people experience asthma symptoms induced by their allergic response to pollen, dust mites and pet dander.

Other known causes include respiratory infections and colds, cigarette smoke, allergies, air pollutants, exposure to cold air or sudden air temperature changes, excitement, stress and exercise. In some cases, skin and food allergies may also trigger asthma symptoms.

So why is asthma so prevalent among African Americans, and what can be done about it? Michael Foggs, MD, a Chicago-based allergist who specializes in the respiratory health of inner-city black children, offers firsthand insight. “The particular problem is we don’t have a lot of asthma specialists practicing in the black community,” he says. “We need more resources to train allergists and immunologists who are willing to practice in the inner cities.”

African-American communities also bear an added burden because black children are more sensitized to environmental allergens such as dust mites, cockroach protein, pet dander and mold spores, which often trigger asthma, Foggs says.

This increased exposure results in a higher risk of developing asthma. “If you have high concentrations of environmental allergenic triggers within a given living area,” Foggs explains, “then that consistent and sustained exposure sensitizes the immune system and may eventually cause violent reactions to these allergens in the respiratory system.”

For women in the African-American community, asthma can often be life-threatening. Black women are 30 percent more likely to have asthma than women of other ethnic groups. They also have the highest asthma mortality rate of all groups, with death rates 2.5 times higher than those of Caucasian women.

“African-American women have the highest death rate from asthma—and that’s not common knowledge,” Foggs says. “In our practice, we consider black women to be at high risk for death, and we treat the disease aggressively.”

Among population groups, asthma is more prevalent in children. In 2006, about 6.8 million children younger than 18 had asthma. “But as it relates to African-American children, the numbers are more disturbing,” Foggs states, “not only in the prevalence of the disease in the African-American pediatric community, but also in the outcomes as it relates to the control of the disease. Asthma prevalence is 60 percent higher in black children than in white children, and that’s phenomenal.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asthma causes black children to experience 260 percent higher emergency room visits, 250 percent higher hospitalization and 500 percent higher death rates compared with white children.

Why these staggering numbers? “The reasons [for asthma’s prevalence in the black community] are not known,” Foggs explains. “That’s an area of intense research and investigation at the present time.”

Researchers offer many theories, but numerous factors contribute to the widespread presence of asthma in the African-American community, Foggs adds.

According to a study published by the Oxford University Press, the biggest obstacles to minority communities getting comprehensive information about asthma include lack of education about the disease, poor communication with doctors and inadequate medical care.

“This often occurs in inner-city America,” Foggs says, “and it’s not that the doctors aren’t thoughtful or don’t want to do the right thing.” Instead, he says, doctors aren’t suspicious enough to automatically think a black patient with an intermittent cough might have asthma.

Foggs stresses that these asthma sufferers and their caregivers don’t have access to allergists and immunologists—the health care professionals who are most knowledgeable about the condition.

Allergists and immunologists specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of immune system conditions, such as allergy, asthma, inherited immunodeficiency diseases, and autoimmune diseases, including AIDS.

To determine and manage specific asthma and allergy symptoms, doctors recommend you consult an allergist.

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