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Four steps to stop asthma fr​om taking your breath away

Breathing is important. Just ask NBA Hall-of-Famer Isaiah Thomas or any one of the many Olympic medalists who grew up with asthma. These athletes are living proof that asthma does not always limit activities, if the appropriate steps are taken to treat it. Here are ways to keep children and adults breathing easier.

“Not managing asthma is dangerous and can result in a hospital stay if the proper prescription medications aren’t used,” said Lyndall Harrison, M.D., Chief of the Allergy and Immunology Department at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. “So when these symptoms occur – coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest or shortness of breath – it is important that the individual be seen by a doctor right away.”

Those with a family history of asthma or allergies, particularly an allergic skin condition called eczema, are most likely to develop asthma. Although childhood asthma develops more frequently in boys, women are especially susceptible to asthma in their adult years if they had it as a child.

“A child should have fewer sleepless nights and missed days at school when treatment is started earlier,” Dr. Harrison said. “Treating asthma right away can keep children active.”

Step 1: Looking for “Triggers”

During an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and swollen, causing a bronchospasm – a tightening of the muscles around the small windpipes – which blocks the flow of air and makes breathing a struggle. Attacks can be caused by a variety of external “triggers,” including allergens, weather changes, stress, exercise and ozone levels.

“Treatment is tailored to each individual,” Dr. Harrison said. “After conducting a history and physical, we typically perform pulmonary function testing to measure lung capacity. We also frequently perform allergy testing to identify possible allergic triggers, such as pollen, animal dander or dust. But because not all attacks are a result of allergens, it’s important to examine a patient’s lifestyle to see if other factors might be contributing.” The doctor adds that, most often, there are multiple triggers.

When test results confirm the presence of asthma, Kelsey-Seybold physicians develop a treatment plan with their patients, educate them on checking their daily peak flow, and show them how and when to use their medications.

Step 2: Avoiding Ozone

The average person may not pay much attention to ozone warnings, but for people with asthma, checking ozone levels in the air is more important than watching the weather forecast. Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. But too much ozone at ground level is a problem. This type of ozone forms when sunlight and warm temperatures interact with chemicals (known as hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides), such as motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents.

“Ozone is one of the most hazardous of the common air pollutants, and it’s quite common in the Houston area,” Dr. Harrison said. “When ozone levels are high, it’s critical that people with asthma stay indoors during the day.”

Ozone levels typically rise between May and October when higher temperatures and increased amounts of sunlight combine with stagnant atmospheric conditions that are associated with ozone air pollution episodes. The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission posts a daily Texas ozone report.

Step 3: Learn to Use Medications Effectively

Two types of medicine are used to treat asthma: those that give long-term control and those that provide short-term, quick relief.

"Inhaled medications are often the most effective and the easiest to use,” Dr. Harrison said. “There are inhalers we prescribe as rescue medications to relieve symptoms when they are present. There are other inhaled medications that are used as maintenance to decrease the frequency of symptoms and prevent the need for rescue. Most of these are effective when used once or twice daily.”

Learning how and when to administer medications is vital to suppressing symptoms, but when they do flare up, it’s important for people with asthma to take note of what they were doing prior to the attack.

“By pinpointing the causes of asthma attacks, more efficient treatment can take place to help patients avoid further complications,” Dr. Harrison said.

Step 4: Prepare

“Just because you’re not experiencing symptoms doesn’t mean the asthma isn’t there,” Dr. Harrison said. “The lungs of a person with asthma can be inflamed even when symptoms aren’t present.”

Preparing your environment to avoid trouble is especially important. For many asthma sufferers, this means taking medications prior to exercising. For parents, it means notifying teachers and school nurses of their child’s condition and ensuring they or the child have medication readily available in case of an attack. Other helpful hints include:

  • Use air conditioning so you can keep windows and doors closed against pollen and mold spores. Air conditioning also lowers indoor humidity, which helps control mold and dust.
  • To get rid of mold, make sure that your bathroom, kitchen and basement are clean and have good air circulation.
  • Sleep on foam pillows with airtight covers to prevent mold from forming when you perspire, or wash your pillows weekly. Replace pillows every year.
  • If you cannot control mold on your houseplants, keep them outdoors.
  • Wear a dust mask when vacuuming, or purchase a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and special collection bags.
  • Avoid using a fireplace or wood stove.
  • Ask family members and visitors not to smoke in your home.
  • If you choose to keep a pet to which you are allergic, make sure it stays out of your bedroom. Bathing your pet weekly or brushing it frequently may also help.
  • Avoid strong odors or fumes from room deodorizers, cleaning chemicals, perfume, paint and talcum powder.

To learn more about asthma from a Kelsey-Seybold physician, call our 24/7 appointment scheduling service at (713) 442-0427.
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Lyndall Harrison, MD

​Patient education is key to the successful treatment of allergic conditions, and effective patient-doctor communication is essential. In addition, treatment should always be based on sound, scientifically proven evidence.