Understanding & Living with Asthma

by Marla Phelps

Asthma: A Breakdown
Over 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma and have symptoms ranging from minor wheezing to life-threatening asthma attacks. Asthma occurs when the airways in your lungs become inflamed and constricted. The muscles of the bronchial walls tighten and your airways produce extra mucus that blocks your airways and makes it difficult to breathe. There are two types of asthma: allergic and non-allergic. Allergic asthma, which is extremely prevalent among children, is when asthma symptoms intensify when the individual is exposed to allergens that their immune system is sensitive to. Non-allergic asthma is triggered by substances that aggravate the nose and airways, but do not necessarily trigger allergies.

Allergic Asthma Irritants

  • Animal fur or dander (tiny skin flakes and saliva)
  • Pollen from leaves or weeds
  • Mold
  • Cockroaches
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Household dust

Non-Allergic Asthma Irritants

  • Smoke
  • Perfumes
  • Household cleaners
  • Airborne particles such as coal or chalk dust
  • Changing weather conditions
  • Strenuous physical exercise

Asthma cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled and the prognosis is good with treatment, environmental control, and effective asthma care products. Management includes avoiding asthma triggers and tracking your symptoms.

Asthma & Our Climate
While it is not contagious, the number of people with asthma is on the rise. In the past 20 years there has been a whopping 25% increase in diagnosed cases of asthma according to a global study done by the University of Cambridge, School of Medicine. But what is causing the increase in asthma sufferers? Increased pollution and rapidly changing climate conditions impact both allergic and non-allergic asthma and create more diagnosed sufferers in both categories, especially among children.

Asthma: Management 101
The key to managing either kind of asthma is to reduce exposure to triggers, whether they are physical or allergen related. Always follow instructions from your physician in regard to medical and environmental aids. Many sufferers make the mistake of taking medicine or becoming solely reliant on their inhaler as “rescue medicine” instead of reducing the amount of triggers within their home environment and being mindful of contributing causes to their asthma attacks.

To clean up your home environment and make it an asthma-safe zone, you need to eliminate as much dust and as many general airborne allergens as possible. Start with the simple steps, and go down this list as time and finances allow:

  1. Clean your house thoroughly on a regular basis. Your vacuum cleaner should ideally contain a HEPA filter and have a sealed system construction to ensure that dust and allergens are retained within the machine and not redistributed in the air. If you can afford to have someone do your cleaning for you, then do so, and stay away from the house while it is being cleaned. If you do the housework yourself, wear a face mask to minimize inhalation of dust and airborne allergens.

  2. Reduce clutter and remove allergen-attracting extras like carpets, throws, curtains, decorative pillows and, if possible, upholstered furniture. These fixtures are all breeding grounds for dust mites, so it is essential to remove them or clean carpets and soft furnishings regularly with anti-allergen treatments.

  3. Encase your bed to trap dust mites (and bed bugs!), and keep them away from your body while you sleep. This may seem like a big step, but since you spend 8 hours a day in bed, it is a very worthwhile step towards asthma prevention.

  4. Buy and use an air cleaner – they are scientifically proven to reduce airborne allergens and irritants. Start with one in the bedroom, and add them throughout the home in the rooms where you spend the most time.

  5. Keep humidity at 40% or less by using a dehumidifier. Humid environments are a prevalent trigger in both allergic and non-allergic asthma.

  6. If you have a pet, be sure to keep your pet out of your bedroom, wash your hands frequently after handling your pet, and use pet care products specially designed to minimize the dander, saliva and other allergens that can trigger a reaction.

General Precautions to Help Find Relief No Matter What Your Asthma Triggers Are

To determine contributing factors that are causing you to suffer from asthma attacks, go back and assess your behavior, environment and physical activity prior to the onset of each attack. Look for common themes, and as you see a pattern developing, try avoiding what you believe is the possible trigger and see if fewer attacks follow. This sounds straightforward, however many people fail to take this simple step, which can make living with asthma much more manageable. Start by asking yourself when and where you get the most attacks and continue to investigate from there.

  • Do you get asthma attacks in the morning or at night?
  • Indoors or outdoors?
  • Are common allergic triggers like pets, mold, smoke or dust usually prevalent when you feel the onset of an attack?
  • Do you always get an attack if you go to a particular place?

Often people find that when they are keeping an eye out, a regular pattern of triggers occurs. Also ask your doctor if you should be tested for allergies, especially if you have been generally diagnosed as “having asthma." Know whether it is allergic or non-allergic asthma and, if the former, what allergies are causing the attacks. This is an easy way to avoid triggers and to find some relief.

Finding Relief
While all of the above, if followed, will help to lessen the number of asthma attacks, the bottom line is that if you have asthma you will have an attack from time to time. To help alleviate the suffering when those unfortunate attacks occur, here are a few tips and 'wives tales' that will help to make things more bearable.

  1. Keep your head elevated and your airway open. When having trouble breathing, the tendency is to slouch and curl up into a fetal position to find comfort. If you get this urge, stop, put a few pillows (preferably encased pillows) under your head and make sure your neck is fully extended.

  2. Always have an inhaler at your disposal, according to your doctor's instructions. Always carry one in your purse or backpack, especially when you will be going to new and unfamiliar environments that could contain unknown irritants. Ladies, are you strapped for room in your purse? Ask your doctor for an inhaler sample. They are half the size of regular inhalers.

  3. Have a mint. It’s debatable if this old wives tale has any medical basis, but peppermint does help to open the airways and stimulate deep strong breaths. So even if it does not cure your attack, it islikely to make you feel better, which is quite important.

  4. Get some steam – another wives tale that is supported by some doctors. If you have an attack and are in a place where you can shut yourself in a contained shower or bathroom, turn on the hot water, relax and breathe. The steam will help open airways to increase lung capacity, and the heat and being still will make you relax, which is essential for easier breathing. Just make sure you are keeping that airway open.