It’s “National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month”, so it’s time to be aware of asthma. In general, I’m not a fan of awareness campaigns. Like billboards, I assume they achieve just enough to keep folks coming back but I refuse to believe that we’re saving lives as effectively as possible. That’s my cynical side typing. My ever-positive side, on the other hand, knows that any spark that causes one more research donation or one more vigilant friend or parent has to be a good thing – so I write about asthma.
The first bit of awareness: we need the “th” in asthma. In all likelihood, the “th” prevents us all from pronouncing it ASS-MA. I’ll leave that right there for you to decide whether that’s for the better.
Giggles aside how do we respond to someone when they mention their asthma? Someone says “Oh, I have asthma” or “my kid has asthma” and we usually respond with a reaction somewhere between hearing about someone’s fender-bender and hearing what someone had for lunch yesterday. Asthma, for most of us, is perceived as a condition in which someone has an issue, inhales some medicine and feels better. Many of us have witnessed a friend or someone who has paused what they were doing, taken their inhaler, and gone about their day.
I will admit that before becoming intimately aware of asthma because of my son, I thought of asthma in much the same way even though my brother has asthma and I remember childhood nights when I would wake up to the sound of an air compressor forcing asthma medicine into my brother’s lungs. Still, he took medicine, and got better, and I was a kid so this is how my parents explained it to me. No big deal.
When my son was hospitalized with asthma before his first birthday, I started wondering if I hadn’t been underestimating asthma all these years. Still, I wasn’t sure at first if I was worried just because I was a new parent. After all, doctors are leery to diagnose asthma. Here was how our conversation went in the hospital room:
Us: We’re confident that our son has asthma!
Dr: Well, we don’t diagnose asthma this early. It may not be asthma.
Us: His birth-mom and birth-dad have asthma and his biological brother and sister both have asthma.
Dr: Okay, then he has asthma.
This didn’t happen over the course of multiple conversations. The exchange lasted as long as it just took you to read those 4 lines. And just like that, my son had asthma. Just like that!!
But watching my infant child cough and spurt and struggle to breathe changed my perception of asthma, of course, and my understanding continued to evolve with every hospital visit, in-home treatment and pulmonary function test over the years. It’s hard to change awareness with pamphlets, infographics or tons of data; so instead, I leave you with some ways to shift your understanding a little bit.
One Breath Every Second
When my son was still an infant and having an acute asthma attack, we would time his breathing over the course of a minute. We would hope for 20-30 breaths per minute. We would wince when it would hit 60.
If you have a moment and you’re not around anyone who might think you need medical attention, try inhaling and exhaling every second. Ready. Go. For me, it takes about 5 seconds for my brain and body to wonder what the hell is going on. It’s not comfortable, yet this is a typical of an infant suffering from an acute asthma attack.
Sometimes my son needs help to breathe
Do you respond differently to the two following statements?
“I have asthma.”
“Sometimes, I need help to breathe.”
We know that asthma is a lung condition and that breathing is a fundamental, involuntary thing we do, but our reactions to an asthma attack and someone visibly struggling to breathe are different. Obviously an asthma attack and choking are two very different episodes with different medical responses. However, we gain a better understanding of asthma when we remember that our friends and family with asthma sometimes can’t get enough oxygen in their lungs without assistance. I’ve only struggled to breathe once in my life and it terrified me. I slipped off the top of a fence in my friend’s backyard and landed flat on my back. I had the wind knocked out of me for the first time in my life and I absolutely thought in that moment that I was dying. When we need help to breathe, it’s kind of a big deal.
Carbon Dioxide Retainers keep poison in their lungs
Here’s a quick breathing primer: We need oxygen, we make carbon dioxide, we get rid of carbon dioxide as fast as possible. This last step is important, because carbon dioxide is poisonous to us and doesn’t belong in our bodies. Carbon Dioxide in your lungs is like a Nick Jonas song in your ears. You have to un-hear it as immediately as possible or bad things happen.
Unfortunately, while some asthmatics struggle to take in oxygen, carbon dioxide retainers struggle to expel carbon dioxide. The result is that CO2 then lingers around potentially causing long term damage. Retainers face a higher risk of mortality, in part because the issue isn’t as noticeable to a parent, friend or doctor trying to listen for a cough or wheeze.
The inhaler is not an accessory
Cough, wheeze, chest tightening, puff of albuterol, and all better…
The infamous inhaler that sometimes identifies the weaker adolescent co-stars of Hollywood coming-of-age movies IS a first-responder medical device that is necessary in an emergency situation. It is NOT a complementary fashion accessory to a pocket-protector.
During an acute asthma attack, it is used to slow down, stabilize or reverse an inflammatory reaction that is blocking air from getting where it needs to go.
Sometimes, this may be all a patient needs. In severe cases, what follows could be an ER visit or overnight hospitalization. Either way, parents and kids then deal with days or weeks of steroid doses and round the clock treatments and breathing tests to monitor progress. The medicine has unkind side effects, the routine is exhausting, the situation is demoralizing.
So as you close the laptop lid or put your phone back in your pocket, go forward with a little more empathy and a little better understanding for the tumult and tenacity it takes to live with asthma.
As you watch a friend or loved one pause what they’re doing to grab their inhaler, keep in mind the extensive protocols in the hospital and home that you don’t see.
Next time you take in your first deep breath of the day, keep in mind that sometimes infants need 60 breaths per minute to get oxygen and remember that getting air out of our bodies is just as important to getting air into our bodies.
If nothing else, keep in mind that asthma isn’t inconvenient, it is life changing.