Helium treatment for asthma sufferers

June 22, 2009 3:19:22 PM PDT
Asthma affects 23 million adults and 9 million kids. The wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing, a severe asthma attack can kill. Now, some doctors recommending helium to help patients breathe easier. "It should, in theory, make oxygen concentration go up in the bloodstream," said Dr. James Swift, a pediatric intensive care physician at Sunrise Children's Hospital in Las Vegas.

Doctors coat the airways with a mixture of helium and oxygen. In turn, it creates a smooth pathway for the air to travel.

"Air moves in and out very easily," Dr. Swift said.

Air flows through lungs like water in a stream. Rocks cause turbulence. Those rocks are like the mucus in lungs, blocking air flow.

"That helium layers out and allows the oxygen and the CO2 to get in and out of the airways in a much more efficient manner," Dr. Swift said.

Asthma attacks sent 13-year-old Zach Hibbert to the emergency room several times.

"Playing with the dogs a lot, and I'd just start not breathing," Zach said.

During his last attack, Zach was put on helium for a few days.

"Looking at him, he looked a little blue around the lips, and I knew there was a problem," said Alfredo Hibbert, Zach's father.

The helium helped Zach's breathing return to normal, and he's been good to go ever since.

Dr. Swift says the worst cases of asthma are often in kids five to 18, and if not treated, some cases can lead to heart failure.


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