Friday, August 31, 2007
Asthma attack like 'breathing through a straw'
A friend has suffered from asthma since he was a little boy. So when I asked him what it was like to have an asthma attack, he had lots of different responses. "It's like drowning without water... like you're breathing through a straw," he said matter-of-factly. Breathing through a straw? "Yeah", he said. "Try it sometime." So I did. I hiked down to the cafeteria, grabbed a straw and started walking back to my office, breathing through the plastic tube. By the time I got to the elevator, I was winded, and when I made it to my desk, I had to sit down. It wasn't easy. In fact, if I had to breathe like that for a long period of time, it would be debilitating.
Twenty-two million people suffer from asthma in the United States, and that number according is growing, according to the American Lung Association. Even though it's treatable, severe asthma attacks can destroy patients' lungs, put them in the hospital, or even in the morgue. The CDC estimates that more than 4,000 people died of complications from asthma in the U.S. last year. And according to pulmonary experts, that doesn't have to happen. They say no one should die from asthma.
In an effort to make sure asthma patients live active, full lives while minimizing the risk of their condition, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH is recommending new guidelines for doctors and patients on how best to treat asthma. The recommendations are pretty lengthy, but there are a couple of key points. The NHLB wants to make sure doctors stay in touch with their asthma patients, because asthma symptoms can change as people get older. It also is asking patients to make sure they always take their medication, no matter if their symptoms have diminished. And the NHLB wants patients to recognize what triggers their asthma and to keep in touch with their doctors on a yearly basis, to make sure the medications they are using are working to full potential.
So why, you ask, would an asthmatic stop medication? Because the symptoms don't always linger. Sometimes asthma patients can go for years without having an attack. They get a false sense of security; they drop their meds, pitch their inhalers and go on with life. The problem is, asthma is chronic and it does return and when it does, it can be fatal.
Asthma can also be triggered by environmental factors and physical problems. Recent studies have shown that chronic conditions including reflux, obesity, sleep apnea, depression and even stress can cause frequent asthma attacks. And there are lots of things around us that can affect an asthmatic. Allergens are a biggie, because they cause allergic reactions that can set off an attack. Some common allergens are dust mites, mold, pollen and pet dander. And pollutants in the air are also major triggers. Chalk dust, smoke (especially secondhand smoke), even scented candles and perfumes can make asthma patients, especially asthmatic children, miserable. Asthmatics also have to watch how vigorously they exercise, because they become winded easily. Even the weather, especially cold and dry air, can cause asthma symptoms in certain people.
For my friend, asthma is part of his everyday life. He carries an inhaler. His family can handle the situation should he have an attack. The NHLB would like to see more families like my friend's, because they're aware of what the condition can do to their loved one. And according to physicians, knowing more about asthma is the best way to fight it.
Are you an asthmatic? Do you have a loved one who has asthma? Are there any recommendations you can make to help asthmatics live healthier lives? Let us know.
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