Asthma: 8 Things Doctors Want You to Know
- 8 Surprising Facts About Asthma from Allergy and Asthma DoctorsIn the 1800s, asthma often was treated with cigarettes. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Thankfully doctors today have a much better understanding of asthma and how to treat it effectively. In fact, up to 80% of people with asthma achieve control of their symptoms just by using a routine medication protocol. For the 20% or so who need additional therapy, new research into biologic medications holds exciting promise for stopping asthma symptoms for good. From how asthma develops to subtle warning signs of an impending asthma emergency, these practicing doctors share their best asthma advice.
- 1. “Asthma is not just a childhood disease.”Approximately 10% of children in the United States have asthma, but around 8% of adults do, too. In fact, you can get asthma as an adult even if you never had symptoms during childhood. “Many people do not realize that asthma can newly occur in adulthood,” said Sharon Rosenberg, MD, pulmonologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Women are more likely to develop asthma as adults, possibly due to hormonal changes. Some women first experience asthma symptoms during pregnancy, while others have their first asthma attack during or after menopause. However, asthma can develop in anyone, at any age.
- 2. “You can’t outgrow asthma.”Many people who experienced asthma as a child never have any symptoms in adulthood. But that doesn’t mean you “outgrew” the disease. “Once an asthmatic, always an asthmatic,” said Jonathan Bernstein, MD, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “Many patients learn to adapt to their asthma and do not recognize their deteriorating condition,” which can lead to an asthma emergency. If you were diagnosed with asthma as a child, you should be alert to any symptoms that could indicate a flare-up in adulthood, no matter how long ago your last symptoms occurred.
- 3. “You don’t have to give up your dream of an athletic career just because you have asthma.”One pernicious myth says people with asthma should avoid exercising. This is simply untrue. “Many patients assume the diagnosis of asthma will somehow limit them physically for the rest of their lives,” said Jon Stahlman, MD, section chief of allergy at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Scottish Rite Hospital. “They should know that asthmatics routinely go on to compete in the Olympics and play professional sports, such as basketball, football or soccer.” Research shows exercise actually improves the lung function of most people with asthma. Always check with your allergist about how to control your asthma symptoms while exercising.
- 4. “Ditch the maternal guilt. You didn’t cause your child’s asthma.”Some women believe they caused their child’s asthma during pregnancy through certain behaviors, such as living with a cat or jogging in smog. But even egregious acts like smoking during pregnancy have not been shown cause asthma. “There is very little that can be done to prevent asthma,” Dr. Bernstein said. “Studies have tried to implement environmental control interventions during the third trimester of pregnancy to see if this would reduce the chances of developing allergen sensitization and asthma [in the baby]. The study found there may have been a delay, but the interventions didn’t prevent asthma from developing.”
- 5. “Your symptoms may not actually be caused by asthma at all.”Difficulty breathing, audible wheezing, and other classic asthma symptoms sometimes can be caused by another condition entirely. Particularly if you don’t achieve symptom control with a medication protocol, you should ask your doctor if the cause might be something other than asthma. “Many conditions, such as vocal cord dysfunction, parasites, and sarcoidosis, can masquerade as asthma,” said Sunit Jariwala, MD, director of allergy and immunology research at Montefiore Health System in New York. “For difficult-to-control asthma cases, patients should be evaluated for potential asthma masqueraders.”
- 6. “Don’t rely on home remedies to treat your asthma.”Many old wives’ tales tell how to treat asthma at home. But taking herbs, eating local honey, or drinking coffee to control symptoms not only doesn’t work, but could endanger your life. “There are no appropriate ‘home remedies’ for people with asthma,” said Mark Millard, MD, medical director of the Baylor Martha Foster Lung Care Center in Dallas. “The majority of the approximately 3,500 people who die from asthma every year either are not taking prescribed asthma medication at all or are not adherent to their medication plan.” So don’t get your asthma information from well-meaning friends. Rely on your doctor’s advice.
- 7. “Nighttime coughing could signal an impending asthma emergency.”The symptoms of an asthma emergency often are dramatic and easy to recognize: Severe difficulty breathing, lack of relief from using a rescue inhaler, and a low spirometry reading require immediate medical intervention at an emergency room. But other warning signs could be more subtle. “Cough is one of the first signs of an impending exacerbation, especially at night,” Dr. Stahlman said. Anyone with asthma who wakes up coughing on a regular basis would be wise to make an appointment with their allergist.
- 8. “Don’t bother moving to a dry climate.”Years ago, people with asthma were advised to relocate to dry climes, perhaps in the desert southwest of the U.S. However, you should spare yourself the expense and stress of a long-distance move because weather does not treat your symptoms. “Wherever you move to, your asthma moves with you,” said Dr. Rosenberg. “While you may leave one trigger behind, your new environment may present new ones. Some triggers, such as dust mites, are ubiquitous.” A better solution than moving cross-country is to adhere to your medication routine and avoid asthma triggers like cigarette smoke or pet dander.