What is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic illness that causes inflammation and narrowing of the breathing airways, resulting in episodes of wheezing, coughing, increased secretions, and shortness of breath. The narrowing can be reversed, or even prevented, with the right behaviors and treatment. The episodes of narrowing are generally triggered by an immune response to something your body is exposed to. When your immune system identifies a foreign invader, whether it is an infectious organism, something you are allergic to (allergen), exercise, toxins or chemicals in the environment, or extreme weather conditions, it releases cells and chemicals that cause inflammation. As your airways narrow, breathing becomes more difficult. The key to management of asthma is to prevent the exacerbations from occurring. This is accomplished by either taking medication that prevents inflammation, avoiding infections, or reducing your exposure to triggers. As asthma is often associated with allergies, controlling your environment can go a long in controlling your symptoms.
What Can I Do to Stay Healthy?
Your actions will have the greatest effect on how well your asthma is controlled. It is important to develop a workable plan with your doctor, and then follow it. And when life tosses you a curveball, you need to have a provider you can trust, and an emergency plan.
Communicate with Your Doctor
Your doctor can help you prevent the complications of asthma, but it’s up to you to communicate. He or she may ask you to keep a diary of your symptoms, especially if they seem to be escalating. The frequency of your symptoms can be separated into different categories of asthma, and this will help them determine your best treatment options.
Intermittent asthma means that you are experiencing symptoms two days or less per week. The symptoms should not be interfering with your daily living and they should not awaken you at night more than twice per month. With this type of asthma, your only treatment would probably be a rescue inhaler, which is used to open your airways when you are having an acute attack. You should also not need to take oral steroids, which are systemic anti-inflammatories, more than once per year to control an exacerbation. It is extremely important that you report symptoms that are more frequent, because that means you have developed a more severe form of asthma and will need a different treatment plan.
Persistent asthma is as it sounds – asthma symptoms occur more regularly than twice per week, and nighttime symptoms occur more often than twice monthly. At this point, you may be experiencing some limitation to your activities because of wheezing or shortness of breath. Keep track of how often you are coughing, wheezing, feeling short of breath, waking up at night, limiting your activities, and using your inhaler. If the frequency of symptoms is increasing, it is time to call your doctor.
Take Your Medications
There are a number of different types of medications used to control asthma, and each one has a different use and a different pattern of use. For example, if you have a rescue inhaler, such as albuterol, it is meant to be used either when you are actively having symptoms or before you will encounter a trigger. For instance, if exercise is your trigger, you may need to use the inhaler before physical activity. This is a short-term bronchodilator (airway opener) to fix a problem in the moment. If you need it more frequently, it’s time to let your doctor know.
People with persistent asthma will need to take asthma-controller medications every day, and sometimes more than once per day. Some of these medications are taken through an inhaler, and some are in pill form. The important thing to remember is that these are routine, daily medications that are used to suppress your airway’s reaction to triggers. They only work if they are taken as directed. If you are feeling better, it doesn’t mean you don’t need these medications any more. It means that they are working. That is not to say that your condition won’t improve and you’ll always be on these medications. It does mean, however, that you should discuss any changes with your doctor before you make them.
Your diary should be able to help you identify triggers. Because allergies are often triggers, blood and skin tests can be done to identify what you react to. Once identified, your choices in controlling your asthma are to avoid the triggers entirely, restrict exposure or take medications that will reduce your reaction to them.
Some of the most common environmental triggers include dust mites, mold, animal dander, and cockroaches. There are specific measures that you can take to limit your exposure. Cover pillows and mattress with allergen resistant fabrics. Wash your bedding in hot water regularly. Carpets, fabrics, and drapes can all harbor dust mites, so eliminating these products from your home will help. Ideally, fill your home with surfaces that can be easily wiped clean like tile, wood, leather, or vinyl. Throw pillows and stuffed animals also harbor allergens.
Have your home checked for mold and prevent the collection of standing water or dampness. Cleaning visible signs of mold with bleach regularly will help to control this trigger. Animal dander is also a common culprit, and unfortunately the only true way to eliminate risk, is to remove the animal. Even after the animal is removed, it may take a considerable amount of time and cleaning to eliminate all of the dander. Adequate extermination techniques, removing garbage promptly and keeping the kitchen dishes clean all help to eliminate cockroach droppings, which are known triggers.
Other common triggers to consider when adjusting your environment include plant pollens, cigarette smoke and ashes, aerosol sprays and perfumes, fires, car exhaust, and industrial and cleaning chemicals. Controlling your environment can seem an endless task, but the benefits are great in staying healthy when you have asthma.
Respiratory infections can greatly exacerbate your asthma symptoms, and asthma can make it harder for you to recover from these infections. Viral infections, like the flu and the common cold, are more prevalent in the cooler months but you can get sick any time of the year. The greatest way to prevent infection is washing your hands frequently and regularly. It is also a good idea to keep your hands away from your face, and to keep your work surfaces clean. It is extremely important that you do everything you can to prevent serious infections. This includes getting a pneumonia vaccine when it is recommended, and having a flu vaccine every year. If you feel as though you are getting sick, you should contact your doctor right away.
Have an Emergency Plan
Your doctor will help you develop a personalized action plan if your symptoms worsen. You should be able to measure your peak expiratory flow (PEF) with a device at home. This measures your rate of exhalation, and the slower it is, the worse your condition is. Your doctor will help you determine when you are in a “green zone”, meaning your symptoms are well-controlled; a “yellow zone” which indicates you are having some difficulties; and a “red zone”, which means you have severely narrowed airways and need immediate treatment. Discuss what you should do in each of these zones with your doctor, and then follow the plan. You should also wear medical identification so emergency health care providers know that you have asthma.
If you have any more questions on asthma treatment and how you can best manage your symptoms, call the expert staff at Northwest Pulmonary & Sleep Medicine at 8154777350 to request an appointment at one of our locations in South Barrington or Crystal Lake, Illinois. You can also register an appointment online.