Health Matters: Asthma
Asthma is a chronic condition where inflamed airways make it hard to breathe. The condition is often aggravated by smoke and respiratory illnesses, which is especially problematic when our air is thick with wildfire smoke and we’re in the middle of a pandemic involving a respiratory virus. To make matters worse, even though asthma isn’t contagious, it can be awkward to try to explain your asthma-induced cough in social circles when coughing is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19.
So, if you were ever going to choose a time to start taking better care of yourself to reduce your asthma symptoms, now would be the perfect time.
Most people are diagnosed with asthma as young children. Their wheezing and obvious struggle to catch their breath often makes them stand out in a crowd. Asthma is caused by a combination of genetics and exposure to environmental factors. Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma, but people with asthma can still live long, comfortable lives.
Not all asthma is created equal. For some people, it’s a minor annoyance; for others, it’s the reason they’re on a first-name basis with the nurses at their local emergency department. Also, some people primarily experience symptoms in certain situations, such as during exercise (especially in cold, dry weather); when exposed to irritants such as dust, chemicals, or fumes; or when they come into contact with allergens such as pollen, mold, and pet dander. And it can change over time. Some people who have severe asthma as children later seem to outgrow most symptoms.
In addition to shortness of breath and wheezing, symptoms can include chest tightness, waking up in the night because it’s hard to breathe, increased sputum (mucus), and coughing attacks made worse by a cold, flu, or other respiratory illness. Generally speaking, people are diagnosed after an evaluation of their symptoms followed by a pulmonary function test and chest x-ray to look for an underlying cause. For example, without an x-ray it can be hard to know if a child is wheezing because they have pneumonia or inflamed bronchial tubes.
The long and short of it is that if you have asthma, you have decreased airflow, so the question becomes: what can be done? The first step is to work with your medical provider to understand your diagnosis and the various treatments available. Inhalers can deliver different types of medicine to your lungs to open airways and allow you to get the oxygen you need. There are medicines for short-term, rescue needs and medicines for long-term maintenance.
The next step is to increase your overall health by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding asthma triggers, including all types of smoke, whether from smoking tobacco or marijuana, or being exposed to poor air quality. If you go to purpleair.com, you can find out the air quality in your region at any given time. If it’s bad, stay indoors and close your windows. If you have an air purifier, use it.
Some people struggle with anxiety and get caught in a loop—the inability to breathe well makes them anxious, being anxious makes it harder to breathe, they get more upset because they cannot get enough oxygen, and so on. For those who suffer with anxiety, please discuss this with your medical provider who may recommend working with a behavioral health specialist. Breaking that anxiety/asthma loop can really improve your quality of life.
I can’t stress enough the importance of using medication as prescribed and staying in touch with your medical provider. I know several people with asthma who don’t like taking their daily asthma prevention medication, so they wait until their symptoms worsen and then they require urgent or emergency treatment. The more often you experience serious inflammation, the more damage you’re doing to your bronchial tubes. If your asthma seems to be getting worse, even when you take your medication as prescribed, make an appointment with your medical provider. Things can change over time. Working with your medical provider will give you the best opportunity to breathe comfortably.
Sarah Beach is a medical provider at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.