Many of my patients have asthma – ranging from mild cases with occasional symptoms and others who cannot be without a rescue inhaler. The American Lung Association reports that some 23 million Americans have asthma, about 1/3 of them children.
In fact, the incidence of asthma occurring in children is increasing for currently unknown reasons. I would bet, though, that many of these cases are due to environmental pollutants, or perhaps, even allergies to all the pesticides involved with our food today.
Some of my patients have had asthma since childhood and others acquired it as an adult, usually from environmental irritants like cigarette smoking, automobile and truck fuel fumes, pet fur dander/allergies, occupational chemical fumes, or even house dust and mold spores.
Many of my patients who have asthma were surprised when they were diagnosed with the condition as they had mild symptoms and so far managed to control them. However, asthma can go from mild to worse quickly, depending on what triggers it. Could you be one of these people? Today, I’d like to talk to you about asthma, what it is, and some things you can and should do to get help for your symptoms. First, let’s look at how to recognize asthma.
Common Symptoms of Asthma
For those of you who may have symptoms that you are wondering about, these are the most common symptoms of asthma. However, these symptoms may also be related to vocal chord dysfunction, bronchitis, pneumonia, or even heart failure. That is why proper diagnosis is so important. In addition, these symptoms may be mild and not occur consistently:
• Coughing at night, trouble breathing while sleeping
• Shortness of breath
• Chest tightness, pain, or pressure
If you experience any of these symptoms repeatedly you may have asthma and need to be evaluated by your doctor. After determining that your symptoms are due to asthma, your doctor may refer you to a doctor who specializes in Immunology/Allergy and/or a Pulmonologist who specializes in diseases of the lungs. They can test you for certain allergens that may be provoking your symptoms and measure your breathing on lung function testing equipment to determine your lung capacity and how well you breathe.
Amongst my patients who have asthma, some have mild symptoms and others severe. Some symptoms are aggravated by:
• Laughing hard, or crying (emotional stress, good or bad)
• Viral infections (colds, bronchitis which congest the nasal passages)
• Exposure to irritants and allergens (pet dander, perfume, chemical smells, gas fumes, pollen, etc)
Symptoms of an asthma attack can vary amongst people. In the presence of a trigger (something your allergic or very sensitive to), the airways begin to spasm and constrict (bronchospasms). The lining of the airways also become inflamed, more mucus is produced and plugs the airways, so that breathing becomes difficult, sometimes life-threateningly so. An attack can also be accompanied by 1 or more of the following symptoms:
• Severe wheezing when breathing in/out
• Uncontrollable coughing
• Rapid breathing, rapid heart beat
• Paleness/blueness of lips or fingernails
• Chest pain, pressure
If you experience any of the above symptoms, don’t try to ride them out on your own as they may worsen to the point where you cannot breathe at all. You could lose consciousness and die. Get to an emergency room or urgent care center immediately, or call 9-1-1, so you can be given epinephrine, an emergency asthma treatment medication that will open your airways and allow you to breathe freely again.
How Is Asthma Treated?
If you are diagnosed with asthma, day-to-day treatment will likely consist of a “rescue inhaler”, which your doctor will prescribe for you to use in the event of more serious symptoms. This consists of medication inside a small canister that puffs a measured amount of the medication into your lungs. This will reduce the inflammation and mucus so that air can get into your lungs more easily.
In addition, you may also be prescribed another inhaler medication that works to reduce inflammation in your airways to prevent future attacks from occurring. Or, you may be given an oral medication (pill form) to take to decrease inflammation and constriction in your airways.
What Else Can You Do For Your Asthma?
First of all, you will need to follow up regularly with your doctor to make sure your medications are working properly and that your condition is not worsening. In addition, there are several things you can do to help your asthma by reducing inflammation, the single most cause of an asthma attack.
• Vitamin D – recent research has shown that a deficiency in Vitamin D can contribute to your steroid inhaler not working efficiently and/or you becoming resistant to steroid therapy. Have your blood levels tested to determine if you are deficient. If so, take 1,000 mg of Vitamin D3 a day to increase to optimal level.
• Quercetin, fish oil, Vitamin C, lycopene, magnesium, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, cordyceps (a Chinese herb long used for treatment of respiratory problems). All these work to reduce inflammation in your lungs and throughout the rest of your body.
• Keep a Clean Environment – keeping your house/work space free of dust, mold spores, bacteria, and viruses can help keep asthma symptoms under control as well. Investing in a good HEPA air filter can also help. Using bleach in shower stalls and toilets can keep mold from growing. Change the filters on your furnace and AC regularly.
• Scrub Your Fruits/Vegetables – clean your fruits and vegetables very carefully with a wire whisk brush after you’ve soaked them in a special produce soak solution. This solution can be bought at most produce departments. It removes the pesticides that are present on most produce that may be a trigger for you.
As I tell my patients who are diagnosed with asthma, many, many people live full and healthy lives with the condition. However, it can also be very uncomfortable, and even life threatening, if you don’t get the proper treatment for it.
Seeking the correct diagnosis of your symptoms, following up with your doctor regularly, identifying and staying clear of specific triggers for your symptoms, will help you get control of your asthma and prevent attacks.
Be sure to return next time for Asthma Part II: New Treatments Can Prevent Attacks where I’ll tell you about some very promising new research that identifies new ways to treat asthma, especially if you have difficulty using steroid inhalers.