May is Asthma Awareness Month!
Hey everyone! Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the awareness blog! Last week we talked about the Spoon Theory and chronic illness. I got a few emails about the post, and I just wanted to say how truly validating it is when my readers connect to a post. Chronic illness is exhausting, and just feeling like someone out there understands can be incredibly comforting. I just wanted to share that I’m glad that some of you could relate, and felt like the blog entry helped in some way. I also encourage you guys to check out the #spoonie community on social media. When I first started exploring it, I was shocked by how many stories I read that sounded like my own. It’s also helpful to discuss treatments, and medicines, and symptoms. Sometimes one of the other spoonies will know of a treatment your doctor hasn’t suggested that helped them. The community can also be filled with humor about the reality of living with a chronic illness, and we all know that laughter is the best medicine. So, check it out. Speaking of chronic illness, today’s topic fits into that category. Today we’re going to learn a little bit about asthma, in honor of Asthma Awareness Month.
I’m sure everyone is familiar with asthma to some degree. I think there’s at least one kid in every school who has asthma and relies on an inhaler to be able to get through P.E. or band practice (shout-out to my little brother, who has asthma and played the clarinet in high school). Despite the stereotype of nerdy kids with asthma, it’s a very common disease that affects tons of professional athletes and musicians. When properly treated and managed, the disease doesn’t hold you back from doing anything you want to do. When not well controlled, asthma can be very serious, and even life threatening.
So, what is asthma, anyway? How does it work? Asthma is an inflammatory condition that affects the lungs, which affects how well a person is able to breathe. Asthma is believed to be caused by a combination of environmental factors and genetics; meaning that it can run in families, and may be triggered by allergies or things like pollution. It can cause a wheezing sound when you breathe, a feeling of being unable to catch your breath, coughing, tightness of the chest, which can become worse with exercise or during the night. Fun fact: the word asthma actually comes from the Greek word for panting.
Asthma occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed in reaction to a trigger, like smoke or even a food allergy. When the lungs are exposed to a trigger, they become inflamed and begin producing sticky mucus, which makes breathing even more difficult because it can obstruct the airways. It can also cause the bronchial tubes to spasm, which is why it can cause a cough. When people start experiencing symptoms suddenly and acutely, it’s called an asthma attack. Asthma attacks must always be treated. Not treating the inflammation in the lungs can cause the inflammation to worsen, making breathing progressively more difficult. Treatment is often very effective, and side effects are pretty mild. Not treating inflammation, especially when it occurs regularly, can result in permanent damage. Asthma varies from person to person, and not everyone will experience the same symptoms in the same ways. No two cases of asthma are exactly the same. They can also vary in one person. Many people who have asthma report changes in their triggers, symptoms, frequency, or severity. The condition can change over time. Symptoms can also vary by trigger, resulting in mild symptoms when exposed to one trigger, while another trigger may cause a very serious and dangerous asthma attack. It’s all about learning your triggers, and finding the best ways to deal with your asthma.
Some people can go long periods of time without having any symptoms, like other chronic illnesses. If you remember last week’s post, one of the hallmarks of chronic illness is that the disease can be managed, but rarely cured. Not having a cure doesn’t mean that it can’t be controlled, though. Chronic illnesses, when treated and managed well, can sometimes stop causing symptoms. Many people with chronic illnesses experience long periods of no symptoms. Even if symptoms reoccur, it’s usually easier to get back under control when it has been successfully managed before. So, don’t be discouraged by reemerging symptoms. Another hallmark of chronic illness is that it comes and goes, so just keep in mind that it will likely pop up from time to time. Always keep an emergency inhaler somewhere you can get to it, just in case you experience an asthma attack unexpectedly.
Side note: make sure your inhalers aren’t expired. Sometimes when people keep a rescue inhaler just in case of emergency, but haven’t had symptoms in a while, they forget to make sure it’s still good. Set yourself a reminder in your phone to reorder the inhaler a few weeks before expiration. Better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it work. That goes for all medicine.
Recognizing the early symptoms of asthma can help lead to a quicker diagnosis, before anything serious happens. Asthma can be tricky to diagnose, sometimes, because symptoms aren’t always bad enough to interfere with daily activity. The symptoms can also mimic other issues, making it easy to overlook. So, let’s take a look at what the early signs or symptoms of asthma may be, so that they’re easier to recognize.
• Coughing. Frequent coughing, especially when it gets worse at night, can be a good indication of asthma. • Wheezing. Wheezing and coughing can come together, and may get worse or be triggered by exercise. • Shortness of breath. This is a common phrase used in medicine, which can be difficult to understand. Shortness of breath can feel like you can’t take a full breath. It can also feel like you’re inhaling deeply but not getting enough air. Shortness of breath can feel different to different people. • Weakness or tiredness during exercise. Because you’re not getting enough oxygen, exercise can be more difficult than it should be. • Allergies, or common cold symptoms like coughing, runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, headache, or sore throat. • Mood. Mood is one of those symptoms that people don’t usually know can be associated with asthma. People who are experiencing asthma symptoms can be irritable and easily upset, or even just grouchy and tired. • Difficulty sleeping. Since asthma has a tendency to get worse at night, people with asthma can sometimes have a hard time sleeping, or have poor quality of sleep. This is often the source of the tiredness and grouchiness.
Asthma is usually treated with anti-inflammatories and steroids, but the method of delivery can depend on the type of asthma, the severity and the frequency. Most people with asthma end up with some type of inhaler. Inhalers for asthma differ. Some combine two medications into one inhaler, some are simply a steroid, and some help to dilate the airways to allow air to flow easier. There are also at home nebulizers, which are the same kinds of medications found in an inhaler, but better for people who have a hard time using inhalers. Children, infants, and older adults with asthma commonly use nebulizers. This method takes a little longer than an inhaler does, but is equally effective. Following a severe asthma attack, the doctor may prescribe a short course of oral steroids (corticosteroids in pill form) to help reduce the inflammation and help your body to recover, while also preventing another attack. Steroids can have some unpopular side effects, but usually when taken for less than two weeks, side effects are minimized. They are very effective. You may not love taking them, but they can be an absolute lifesaver when they are needed. Of course, you should see your asthma specialist to discuss your options.
Hope this gives you all a clear overview of Asthma. It’s a common issue, so we should all be knowledgeable about it. I remember one time at a party in high school a girl had an asthma attack that was so bad we had to call 911. She was fine after treatment, don’t worry. The point is, even if you don’t have it, or nobody you know has it, it’s still good to know about it… just in case. You never know. I think I’ll end with that scary story. Haha. Come back next week for more anecdotes that scare you into learning about health issues. (Just kidding!)
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