Catch Your Breath: Read Mary's Asthma Story
When Mary of Bordentown was first diagnosed with asthma, she didn’t know the cause but she suspected perfume was the culprit. “I would go in a store and I would lose my breath. Any store with perfume would set it off.” Today, Mary ensures her guests are fragrance-free and household chemicals are used when she’s away from home. Asthma changed her life, yet knowing what triggers her condition has helped her manage.
Many people with early stage asthma may not even know it, mistaking their undiagnosed condition for untreated allergies. Although, if you experience a change in breathing, family physician Harry Manser, DO advises, “See your primary care physician right away, as asthma is a reversible condition.”
What are asthma symptoms to watch for? “Most people feel like they are not getting the air in and out of their lungs as quickly as they’re used to,” says Manser. “They may have some wheezing, feel tired or lethargic. These symptoms can appear in someone of any age.”
Manser says a diagnosis is often confirmed after a thorough health history, medical exam and tests, including a pulmonary function test measuring how well the lungs take in and release air. When an asthma diagnosis is made, the source is then identified, which may be infection, allergies, exercise or medication. “When we know what causes asthma, we can treat it,” says Manser.
Know Your Triggers
Some asthma attacks can be prevented by avoiding the environmental irritants that trigger symptoms. Common causes include tobacco smoke, pollen, animal dander and dust mites. Changes in weather, strong odors and fumes can also aggravate asthma, says Manser.
| Does your asthma feel out of control?
Stay on top of the disease by talking with your doctor. Your doctor is the best person to help you adjust your asthma strategy. Here are three reasons you would need to adjust your current appoach.
1. Your symptoms have changed. You might have new asthma "triggers." Your asthma might be worse (or better). Or you may have symptoms at different times of the day.
2. Your peak flow meter doesn't work well. You might need ot learn how to use the meter the right way or you might need a new one.
3. Your weight has changed. This can affect the amount of medicine you need.
“You need to determine which allergens or irritants set off the asthma and plan ways to avoid or anticipate them. Simple strategies include checking the pollen count in your area or using an allergy-relief mattress cover and pillowcases.”
“Exercise is another trigger. Cooler air is better, so I advise patients to do outdoor exercise or chores in the morning. Using your quick-relief inhaler 15 to 20 minutes before you exercise will help prepare your lungs.”
Develop an Action Plan
With your doctor, draft a detailed strategy for taking maintenance medications and managing an acute attack. A number of medications exist with asthma, and many are used in combination with others. In general, the main types include long-term control medications, quick-relief medications and medications for allergy-induced asthma. Your doctor can help you decide which option is best for you based on your age and the severity of your symptoms.
Asthma therapy should be flexible and based on changes in symptoms, assessed thoroughly each time you see your doctor. Then, treatment can be adjusted accordingly. For example, if your asthma is well controlled, you may be able to take less medicine. On the other hand, if your asthma is uncontrolled or worsening, an increase in medication and more frequent visits with your physician may be required.
Mary’s treatment has changed over the years. “Right now I am taking two medications and I also use the nebulizer every six hours, which is very helpful. We just changed one of my medications a few months ago and so far it’s really helping. That’s the thing, you have to be open to trying new medications because they’re always coming out with new ones. I also have the rescue inhaler — if I’m in between treatments or if it’s a rainy, damp day, I can have a hard time and get short of breath so I need to have that.”
Partner with Your Doctor
The most important step in your plan is to understand what medicines you should be taking, what they are for, how they work, how to take them, and possible problems or side effects they may cause.
If you find it difficult to follow your doctor’s instructions or are reluctant to take a prescription medicine because of side effects, be sure to communicate this.
On your own, keep a log of your symptoms, the medications you use, the amount of medication you use, changes to your condition, and peak flow readings (peak flow meters monitor a person’s ability to breathe out air, measuring the airflow through the bronchi).
“Remember, if you act quickly, you’re less likely to have a severe attack,” says Manser. “You also won’t need as much medication to control your symptoms. When your peak flow measurements decrease and alert you to an impending attack, take your medication as instructed and immediately stop any activity that may have triggered the attack.”
And if your symptoms don’t improve, get medical help as directed in your action plan. “If you are experiencing shortness of breath, it’s like chest pain, don’t take chances. For someone with asthma, things can change rapidly. Sometimes people think they will be OK and suddenly they have a serious problem.” If you have exhausted your resources, seek emergency care.
“One of the things I’ve done,” advises Mary, “is join an international website for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). You have to be careful on the internet, but they have their own library and updates on new medications. You have to research, explore and find out what’s good for your body. You have to make a plan for yourself.”