This article is not medical advice. If you have concerns, consult your physician or medical professional.
Breathing in and out is something most people do automatically. Without thought or concern, awake or asleep, respiration happens spontaneously. For others, trying to catch a breath of air is at times a fight for survival. In Canada, about 10 per cent of the population — 3.8 million people — struggle with asthma.
“Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways that causes symptoms like shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing and wheezing,” Asthma Canada describes. Bronchial tubes swell and narrow, making breathing difficult.
“The airways of our lungs are surrounded by muscles and contain mucous glands. These muscles are normally relaxed, but if you have asthma, they are often sensitive and inflamed.”
A common but serious condition, Canadian statistics from 2011 to 2012 indicated that more than 440 people of all ages were diagnosed with asthma every day; around the world, significant numbers are diagnosed daily. Asthma may also be life-threatening. “Worldwide, it is estimated that one in every 250 individuals will die from asthma,” Canada’s Public Health Infobase Data Blog states.
The largest percentage of asthma sufferers are children and teenagers, but anyone can develop the disease. According to Data Blog statistics, about 18 per cent of boys suffer with asthma whereas about 13 per cent of girls develop the lung disease. As children grow up, the numbers reverse, with more women living with asthma than men, about 11 per cent to eight per cent. respectively
The problem can start early, as happened with a close relative. Now leading an active life and working in the Far North. Ted (a pseudonym for privacy) was only about three years old when symptoms erupted. “I had a hard time keeping up to my parents when walking,” Ted said, “and often wheezed a lot after exertion.” A child with a cough for more than four weeks, an audible whistle from the lungs, tightness in the chest, breathlessness and difficulty breathing are often signals of a chronic problem for a young child.
Symptoms vary widely and come and go for asthmas sufferers. Complaints can change with the seasons, be altered by the environment, by which province the patient resides, or ignited by triggers. Asthma is considered a progressive lung condition and “once someone is identified as a case, they are always in the database as a case,” the Public Health Agency of Canada stated in the report, “Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in Canada, 2018.”
Asthma attacks can be sparked by things that healthy lungs can manage but tender lungs cannot. Cold air, pollen in the breeze, air pollution and tobacco smoke may cause flare-ups. Along with the stress of exercise,” stated PHAC, “cold or chest infections, exposure to irritant fumes or gases” and “allergens like pet dander, house dust, mould, chemicals,” can unleash the misery. There is not much advance warning when an attack is imminent.
“Occasionally I’ll get precursor symptoms such as increased wheezing and struggling to get my breath back for minor things,” Ted said. “When I have a bad attack, it’s like there’s a rubber band wrapped around my chest, and I struggle to draw a breath, which can make it challenging to use my rescue inhaler.” Further distressing symptoms may develop. “The chest wall muscles become sore from the effort of trying to breathe and it just exhausts me.”
Coughs and other symptoms may be caused by a range of different illnesses, such as COPD, sarcoidosis, sinusitis and many more. A physician or health-care professional reaches a diagnosis of asthma through tests. Recording the patient’s history, the doctor will note any family history of asthma, any allergies the patient may have, and their living environment.
Regarded as the best diagnostic test, according to the Canadian Lung Association, spirometry measures speed and amount of air that a patient can blown out of their lungs. Flow monitoring tests and challenge tests add to the assessment. Observation is an important factor, especially for younger kids who are unable to complete the tests.
There is no cure for asthma nor direct answer for the causes of the disease. But hope is not lost. It is possible to control asthma symptoms so sufferers can enjoy active, healthy lives.
Inhaled via puffer, or administered by injection or pills, “‘controllers’ are medications taken daily on a long-term basis to keep asthma under control, mainly through their anti-inflammatory effects,” PHAC said. As well, medications called “relievers” are “used on an as-needed basis that act quickly to reduce asthma symptoms.” The health-care professional may adjust medications as required.
However, for some sufferers like Ted, control may be elusive. “My asthma is ‘not’ under control by modern standards, but none of the meds I have used seem to do much to control my situation.”
Using two prescribed inhalers in combination, the 50-year-old has also “used many of the common steroids, but nothing has made any significant difference for any length of time.” Avoiding triggers such as dogs has been the best route for Ted to evade attacks. He has sage advice for those with family members or friends with asthma.
When asthma “starts to flare, it can be a real killer, literally. Be kind to the sufferers, let them rest and get their medication. And if they ask for the hospital, don’t wait.”
Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.