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By Lyndall Harrison, M.D.
4 steps to stop asthma from taking your breath away
Most of us breathe without giving it any thought but for the nearly 25 million people in the United States who live with asthma, breathing is something they have to think about daily. For them, any number of factors can trigger an asthma attack that renders them unable to catch their breath. But having asthma doesn’t mean you can’t continue to do everything you enjoy. It’s just a matter of managing your condition.
Just ask NBA Hall-of-Famer Isaiah Thomas or any one of the many Olympic medalists with asthma. These athletes are living proof that asthma doesn’t have to limit activities if the appropriate steps are taken to treat it.“Not managing asthma is dangerous and can result in a hospital stay if the proper prescription medications aren’t used,” said Lyndall Harrison, MD, 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’s 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 the condition as a child.
According to Dr. Harrison, there are steps you can take to manage your asthma and prevent it from controlling your life.
Step 1: Looking for “Triggers”
During an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and swollen, causing a bronchospasm, which is a tightening of the muscles around the small windpipes that 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. Testing can determine your triggers, and treatment is tailored to your individual needs.
“By pinpointing the causes of asthma attacks, more efficient treatment can take place to help patients avoid further complications,” Dr. Harrison says. “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.” He adds that, most often, there are multiple triggers.
If your test results confirm the presence of asthma, your Kelsey-Seybold doctor will develop a treatment plan, educate you on checking your daily peak flow, and show you how and when to use your 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 says. “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: Learning 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,” says Dr. Harrison. “There are inhalers we prescribe as rescue medications to relieve symptoms when they’re 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.”
Step 4: Preparing
“Just because you’re not experiencing symptoms doesn’t mean the asthma isn’t there,” Dr. Harrison says . “The lungs of a person with asthma can be inflamed even when symptoms aren’t present.”
Preparing your environment to avoid triggering your asthma is especially important. For many, 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.
Dr. Harrison also suggests these helpful tips:
- Close windows and doors to keep pollen and mold spores out. Opt instead for air conditioning, which lowers indoor humidity and 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 can’t 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 that you’re allergic to, 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.