By Connie Colbert
GCU Director of Health Services
Since 1984, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has declared May to be National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. It is a peak season for people with asthma and allergies and a perfect time to educate patients, family, friends, co-workers and others about these diseases.
According to the AAFA, “More than 65 million Americans overall have asthma and allergies. Some people may have one or both conditions.”
How common is asthma? Here are the statistics from the AAFA:
- About 25 million Americans have asthma (20 million adults and 5 million children).
- About 32 million Americans have food allergies (26 million adults and 6 million children).
- About 24 million Americans have rhinitis (hay fever) or nasal allergies (19.2 million adults and 5.2 million children).
- Asthma rates are highest in Black adults in the United States.
- Asthma is a leading chronic disease in children.
- Asthma is more common in male children than female children. Around 8.4% of male children have asthma compared to 5.5% of female children.
- Differences in asthma rates, ER visits and deaths are highly connected with structural racism, poverty, air quality, housing conditions and poor health care.
What is asthma?
Do you have a chronic cough that never seems to go away? Do you often feel short of breath after a long hike? Do you feel that every time you get a cold it goes to your chest? You could potentially have asthma.
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and swelling of the airways. This results in narrowing of the airways that carry air from the nose and mouth to the lungs.
The muscles around the bronchial tubes in the lungs tighten, causing the airways to become sensitive and restricted. Thicker mucus is also produced, which contributes to the narrowing of the airways in the lungs.
Symptoms of asthma may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing, especially at night
- Tightness in the chest
- Impaired breathing (short, quick or noisy)
The frequency and intensity of these symptoms may vary from person to person. When these symptoms are exacerbated, it is called an asthma attack or asthma flare.
Here’s what can trigger asthma symptoms:
- Allergens such as mold, pollen, animal dander, dust mites and cockroaches
- Irritants such as tobacco smoke, scented products such as perfumes, and pollution
- Intense feelings such as stress, laughter or crying because they can restrict airflow and impair normal breathing patterns
- Additives found in food and wine, such as sulfites
- Some have exercised-induced asthma, where the symptoms of cough and shortness of breath are brought on by exercise.
For more information on triggers, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
How do I know if I have asthma?
If you suspect you (or someone in your care) has asthma, you should visit a clinician to get an accurate diagnosis. The clinician will do several tests to determine if you have asthma and to also make sure you are not mistaking asthma for something else.
You may be diagnosed with asthma if:
- You have frequent periods of coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.
- You get “chest colds” that require 10 or more days of recovery.
- You have a family history of asthma or allergies.
Asthma can range from mild to moderate to severe.
How is asthma managed?
There is no cure for asthma. However, you can do a lot to manage and control your symptoms.
There are two basic types of medications used to control asthma: short-term medications that provide quick relief during attacks and long-term medications that control asthma in general.
You also can manage your asthma by avoiding your triggers.
Avoid allergens and irritants such as smoke and pets, if you know they make your asthma worse.
Maintain a clean-living environment, with minimal dust and mold. Ask your roommate(s) to help, if applicable.
Monitor environmental changes and air quality in your area on a regular basis. You can use Enviroflash from AirNow.gov, a free online service to get air quality updates for your location via email.
Beware of alcohol-medication interactions. Drinking alcohol (for example, wine) and taking medications (such as aspirin) can trigger asthma.
If you exercise, take note if you cough or are short of breath.
Be prepared for an asthma attack. Have medications, medical contacts and emergency information readily available.
Develop an asthma action plan with the help of your medical provider. For an example, see Asthma Action Plan from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
If you have not been formally diagnosed with asthma by a health care provider but have symptoms that are suspicious for asthma, call your primary care provider to discuss as soon as possible.