Controlling Your Asthma: You Have More Options Than Ever
Published May 16, 2016
By Bob Lanier, MD, Special to Everyday Health
May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, so you’re probably hearing a lot about the respiratory condition asthma these days. The good news is that not everything you hear is bad, especially when it comes to treatment.
There’s no doubt about it: Asthma is a serious problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 million Americans — more than 6 million of them under age 18 — have asthma. And it’s also a lot more common today than it was 30 years ago. That increase may be due in part to greater awareness and the ability to diagnose the condition sooner. But other possible contributing factors include exposure to air pollution and poor diet.
Asthma means different things to different people. Symptoms like coughing and wheezing can be mild and intermittent, but severe, persistent symptoms such as difficulty breathing can be life-threatening. The latest CDC estimates show that asthma claims more than 3,600 U.S. lives each year.
Still, an important message to spread this awareness month is that, while asthma is not curable, it can be treated. Thanks to so much research done over the last three decades, there are more treatment options than ever to avoid or manage asthma attacks.
As an allergist in the 1970s, I remember when asthma was managed mainly in the emergency room. I spent long nights in the intensive care unit with children who were desperately ill. That still occurs, but thankfully, it’s not nearly as common. When one of my patients goes to the ER now, it’s usually because the patient’s medications haven’t been taken correctly or there’s some overlapping infection that’s made the asthma hard to control.
Allergists today can prescribe long-term medications to help patients keep their asthma symptoms under control and avoid attacks entirely, as well as quick-acting drugs that patients can self-administer with an inhaler (also known as a nebulizer) as needed. Nebulizers have made a huge difference in reducing the number of children who have to be rushed to the emergency room.
So many children with asthma can look forward to entering adolescence and adulthood with unimpaired lung function. Over time, we’ll see a reduction in adult disease thanks to the improvement of how we treat childhood asthma.
For those with severe asthma, there’s the promising world of biologic therapies that target molecules associated with asthma. Another treatment, bronchial thermoplasty (which the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2010), involves delivering heat to the lung’s airways to reduce the amount of excess smooth muscle that can obstruct breathing.
Of course all medications and therapies can have side effects, and there’s no one-size-fits-all asthma treatment. By working with their allergist, every asthma sufferer has to come up with an asthma action plan that’s right for them.
If you’re concerned that you may have asthma or want to know if your condition is under control, check out the nationwide asthma screening program offered by the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). The ACAAI also offers a searchable database to help you find an allergist near you.
Bob Lanier, MD, is executive medical director and a past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. He is a practicing allergist in Fort Worth, Texas.