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2nd May 2016

Knocking asthma out of the ring

Usually people don’t associate asthma with professional athletes, but 11-year-old kickboxing champion Nathan Kelly, aka Nate the Great, smashes that stereotype to pieces.

Asthma is a condition that causes the air passages leading to and from the lungs to become inflamed and constricted. Despite being only five when he was diagnosed, Nathan has become a five-time National Kickboxing Champion in Ireland as well as a World Champion twice.

His interest in martial arts started when he was just three years old. “I was watching kung fu movies with my granddad and running around pretending to do all the moves,” he remembers. Then he saw a TV ad for kickboxing classes when he was four and the rest was history.

Nathan refuses to shy away from exercise even though it’s a common trigger of asthma attacks ‒ symptoms can include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness, among other things. In severe cases an attack can even be life-threatening. Thirty million European children and adults under the age of 45 have asthma and 15,000 die each year from asthma attacks.1

Proper diagnosis & management are essential

Diagnosis can be particularly tricky. Not everybody has the same symptoms and sometimes symptoms are similar to those of other illnesses. Nathan had repeatedly suffered from chest infections for a few years leading up to his diagnosis. “It would just be one after another,” says his mum Sara. “He eventually had an asthma attack at five years old and was in hospital with it, and was then referred on to the asthma clinic.”

To determine whether someone has asthma, doctors look at factors like family history, the pattern of symptoms and a physical chest examination. There are also simple lung function tests like spirometry and peak flow tests, as well as devices that measure the level of nitric oxide gas in an exhaled sample of a person’s breath.

Treatment of suspected asthma is usually a blue inhaler that contains medicine to open up tight airways (the reliever inhaler) and a brown steroid inhaler to prevent the inflammation that makes the airways narrow (the preventer inhaler).

Nathan has been able to carry on with his sport since his diagnosis because he has an asthma management plan which he follows to the letter, with the help of his mum. He needs to train several times a week but he’s also learned to listen to his body.

“If Nate is bad he will have a rest for a couple of days. He doesn’t like missing training but he knows he has to rest, and he will take his preventer inhaler and get straight back in. It has never stopped him taking part in a competition because Nate prepares himself for it properly,” says Sara.

Once an asthma management plan is in place and medication is taken as directed, the condition is very manageable and controllable, notes the Asthma Society of Ireland, which recently named Nathan as one if its ambassadors.

“He is a perfect role model for children across Ireland who may be fearful to engage in physical activity in case it triggers an attack,” comments the organisation. “He takes his medication as directed, and understands that additional measures need to be taken when preparing for a big event, or even just for the winter months.”

By using his asthma management plan, Nathan is able to control his asthma, instead of his asthma controlling him.

European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients Associations