13-year-old Broadway star Laurel Griggs reportedly dies from asthma — here's why attacks can be fatal

Laurel Griggs, a 13-year-old actress, died last week from what her grandfather called a “massive asthma attack.” Now many are wondering: How could this happen to a young girl?

On Tuesday evening, according to the New York Times, a girl was hospitalized at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York after having difficulty breathing and, despite CPR attempts, she died at the hospital.

Laurel’s father Andy Griggs told the Page Six that his daughter — a talented Broadway actress who starred alongside Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at age 6 and made appearances on Saturday Night Live — was born with asthma, for which she took medication, and that three years ago she experienced a serious attack, making her parents vigilant about their daughter’s health.

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Asthma is a lung disease that affects 6.1 million children, according to the American Lung Association. (Photo: Getty Images)
Asthma is a lung disease that affects 6.1 million children, according to the American Lung Association. (Photo: Getty Images)

According to the Mayo Clinic, asthma occurs when the airways constrict and swell and extra mucus in the lungs build up, causing breathing problems, a tightening of the chest, coughing and wheezing. The American Lung Association states that more than 26 million Americans have asthma, and that includes 6.1 million children.

Attacks are especially common in three scenarios, reports the Mayo Clinic: When people exercise in cold and dry climates, are exposed to dust or chemical fumes or are exposed to allergens such as pollen, mold, and pet dander (shedded skin from furry or feathered animals).

Symptoms can be mild or severe and are treated with a variety of different methods. Hand-held devices called rescue inhalers deliver a medication called albuterol that open lung passages and hand-held nebulizers turn medication into mist.

Asthma looks the same in both children and adults, and people can be diagnosed at any point in their lives. Pulmonologist Harlan Weinberg, MD, medical director of the ICU at Northern Westchester Hospital and director of pulmonary function testing and pulmonary rehabilitation at Northwell Health, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that mortality rates are highest for children under the age of 4 or between the ages of 9 and 16.

“The numbers are rising due to industrialization and air pollution or factors like inadequate access to health care, waiting too long to seek medical attention or living conditions that expose people to mold, mildew or dust,” he says.   

Tragic events such as what happened to Laurel are rare, however, with so many unknown factors — were symptoms long-lasting? Had she battled a recent respiratory illness? Did other medical emergencies lead to the tragic outcome? — that speculation doesn’t apply. “We know so little in this girl’s particular case,” says Weinberg.

Afif El-Hasan, MD, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle that fatalities also depend on the severity of the attack, whether anaphylaxis occurred (a severe allergic reaction) and one’s access to an inhaler. “Severe asthmatics may also have a reduced number of ‘cilia,’ hair-like structures in the lungs that help filter out secretions,” he says. “Those people may be less able to clear their lungs as easily.”

Weinberg adds that vaping (using an e-cigarette), which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has associated with 33 deaths in 24 states and the District of Columbia, is a potential trigger for people with asthma, along with cold weather or even an irritant like perfume.

There could also be an issue with one’s mast cells, which line the respiratory tract and protect the body from infection — except when they backfire, according to Tanya Dempsey, MD, the founder of Armonk Integrative Medicine (AIM), and a specialist in chronic disease, autoimmune disorders and mast cell activation syndrome. 

“When mast cells come into contact with anything foreign — mold, chemical fumes — sometimes they react by exploding and releasing histamine into the body, which causes swelling and inflammation,” Dempsey tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “An underlying problem with mast cells can worsen an allergy attack.”

In emergencies, opening the lungs may require CPR, epinephrine or intravenous magnesium sulfate (the mineral can also relax bronchial muscles).

El-Hasan says young people should report any symptoms of an asthma attack to their parents, and those with babies should watch for warning signs such as hard-and-fast breathing, changes in color around the mouth, and if the ribs are being sucked in with every breath.

“With high-risk patients, asthma often flares quickly,” adds Weinberg, “and they don’t have the luxury of time.”

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