Published on May 29, 2019

Reading Teenager Winning His Battle with Asthma

Every time he coughs, Jonathan Rivera knows instinctively to be wary of what might come next. The American Lung Association estimates there are more than 26 million asthma sufferers across the U.S. Being part of that statistic, Jonathan knows very well how agonizing an asthma attack can be.

"It hasn't been easy growing up with asthma," said the 16-year-old Reading High School sophomore, who was originally diagnosed at age 4. "When I was doing something fun, like running, when I was playing sports, and I started coughing or got short of breath, I would have to stop myself. Sometimes it can get pretty bad."

Asthma is a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the airways of the lung. Usually manifested during childhood, patients can experience excessive coughing and wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Symptoms vary in frequency and intensity among asthma sufferers. Researchers believe the condition is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, and Jonathan and his mother, Veronica Montalvo of Reading, who also has asthma, are sharing his story hoping to help others.

"Jonathan has been coming to us since he was born," said pediatric specialist Renee Riddle, MD, of the Reading Hospital Children's Health Center. "His asthma symptoms flared frequently when he was younger, sometimes significantly enough to require hospitalization. Acute asthma patients can find themselves coughing all night. The shortness of breath and chest tightness can be severe enough where just trying to get out of bed can be really difficult."

Common allergens can trigger asthma attacks, as can odors, sprays, tobacco smoke, and some foods. Exercise, stress, and weather changes also can lead to flares. Over the years, Jonathan has had his tonsils and adenoids removed and has undergone sleep studies to ease his asthma problems. He also carries an inhaler, the hand-held treatment device asthma patients carry to use with the onset of symptoms. Steroid-based medications are the first line of defense against asthma symptoms. But the real key to managing asthma is developing an understanding of all the aspects of a patient's particular condition.

"It is different for everybody," Montalvo said. "The medications that work for one person may not work for somebody else. He has missed a lot of school over the years, and when he was there, like in gym class for example, his inhaler always had to be nearby."

But over the last four years, Jonathan, his mom, and his health team have learned to manage his asthma much more effectively.

"There was a time when his symptoms would flare once or twice a month," Riddle said. "Now he has flares maybe a few times a year. Jonathan and his family recognize his symptoms immediately now. They know what triggers to avoid. He's playing basketball regularly and enjoying his life much more. Jonathan is in a really good place in his life."

Today, the teenager is looking to the future.

"It is a whole lot better now," Jonathan says. "Even my friends know when we are hanging out what kind of things I need to avoid. I am starting to think about what I can do after I finish high school. I just breathe in and breathe out much easier and take each day as it comes."