Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Breathing easy isn't always possible

I have a little experiment for those who don’t have asthma or a breathing disorder or any kind. Put one end of a straw in your mouth. Close your mouth tightly around it; now pinch your nose closed. Try to breathe through the straw – both in and out. The exhaling part is important here. Do that a few times if you can.

This exercise is one that gives people an idea of what it’s like to have an asthma attack. Of course, it doesn’t have the emotional and fright aspect to it that kicks in when you can’t breathe, nor the coughing that many asthmatics have instead of wheezing, but it does show how hard it is to get that air out of your lungs so that you can get more in.

The rate of asthma, a chronic disorder that causes difficulty breathing because of swelling in the bronchi (airway), is still increasing. According to an article published in May of this year, “an individual had a two-in-five chance of developing asthma before the age of 40.” Statistics Canada reports that approximately 3 million people in Canada have asthma. In 2003, 287 Canadians died because of asthma. Similar statistics are found in the United States. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, approximately 20 million Americans have asthma. They point out that the incidence of asthma has increased 75% between 1980 and 1994. Sadly, there are also about 5000 deaths per year in the US that are associated with asthma.

As recent as when I was a child, asthma was still considered to be more psychological than physical, so many people with the disorder weren’t treated properly. With time, doctors learned that asthma is a very frightening illness that is made worse by emotions, not caused by emotions. Speaking from experience, I can attest to that. A physical cause will trigger the asthma. In my case, cigarette smoke or high humidity, for example. If the attack is managed with medications, all is fine. But if the attack is severe and breathing is difficult, the anxiety kicks in and can cause the attack to get worse. I also have the unfortunate trigger of laughter. I can’t have a good belly laugh because if I do, I start to cough and cough – and cough – and cough. It can go on for hours. Makes going to see a comedy show a bit difficult!

Asthma isn’t just a childhood disease though. People can develop it any time in life, as shown by the story about workers at the 9/11 site . Also, asthma doesn’t go away. When I worked in a medical ward, I used to have patients who had been admitted with what is called status asthmaticus. That is an asthma attack that is out of control and just can’t be managed. Many times, the patients would tell me that their asthma had gone away and they hadn’t had an attack in many years. What often happens is that the asthma is triggered by some sort of shock or stress to the body. This shock or stress can be physical (a bad cold, a pregnancy, etc.) or psychological, and the resulting asthma attack can be more frightening than ever because the patient thought that the asthma was gone.

Can we do something to decrease the rate of asthma? Yes, there are some things. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in the United States, provides this interesting page on allergies and irritants, and preventative strategies.

If you want to read more about asthma, check out the asthma section at the MayoClinic.com or the section at the AAAAI.

I’m asthma-free at this moment, so maybe it’s time to stop and smell the flowers while I can. J

News for Today:
Born in the summer? You're more likely to be nearsighted
A Heart Drug May Hold Off Alzheimer's
Treating diabetes during pregnancy can break link to childhood obesity
Methamphetamine study suggests increased risk for HIV transmission
Survey finds elevated rates of new asthma among WTC rescue and recovery workers
Stopping statins after stroke raises risk of death, dependency
New treatment effective for most severe kind of headache


Crabby McSlacker said...

Asthma seems so frightening to me--to not be able to breathe is about the scariest thing there is!

I've had a couple of times where I experienced something similar, both times in high altitude. Both times it started with swallowing something that caused me to cough (water down the wrong way, and a spicy pepper) and for some reason it led to some really scary wheezing where it felt like I couldn't get air. My anxiety of course only made it worse. I hope it's not the beginnings of asthma--both episodes were in the last few years. But fortunately, I don't spend a lot of time at high altitude, so I hope that was a key part of it!

thanks for all the great info!

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Marijke,

Here in New York City we have "pockets" of high numbers of asthmatics. I always blamed the air pollution. Your information proves it is more complicated than that. Thanks so much and thanks for the link to the Statin/Alzheimer's study. (You know I love those health news links!)