Even people with well-controlled asthma can experience flare-ups. Here’s an asthma action plan to prevent your next attack.
By Nancy Stedman
First, believe you can get better
“Asthma is the most treatable of all chronic diseases known to mankind,” says Richard F. Lockey, MD, director, Division of Allergy & Immunology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. “Most people with asthma can lead normal lives.” Medication regimens, if precisely followed, generally keep asthma under control. So, if you have asthma, the most important rule is to take your medications exactly as prescribed and to periodically get your regimen fine-tuned by your physician.
Soak up some sunshine
Or take vitamin D supplements. Both are ways to boost your levels of vitamin D. “Some research has linked a vitamin D deficiency to an increased risk of asthma attacks, though the evidence is far from consistent,” says Rachel Taliercio, DO, who’s on the staff of Cleveland Clinic’s Respiratory Institute. A 2014 Israeli study found that, among over 21,000 adults diagnosed with asthma, those with lower blood levels of vitamin D were more likely than others to experience an attack over 12 months. “I think that if a patient has had good treatment for asthma and is still not controlled, maybe he should be checked for his vitamin D levels before adding on more medications,” the lead author, Ronit Confino-Cohen, MD, told the New York Times. “Maybe supplementation would do the job.” Watch for these symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency.
Don’t drip-dry on your bath mat
For most adults with asthma, the likeliest trigger is a substance that causes an allergic reaction. If you’re allergic to mold, anything that increases the build-up of this fungus in your home can make you more likely to experience a flare-up. Molds often arise in damp environments, such as on a wet bath mat, in your basement, and near an undetected leak under the kitchen sink. Cut down on mold in your home by using a dehumidifier, repairing plumbing leaks promptly, grading the landscape outside your home to move water away from the structure, and maintaining gutters and downspouts, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology suggests.
Treat heartburn seriously
People with asthma often have several other conditions at the same time, including gastroesophageal reflux disease. (Read about other silent signs of asthma here.) Patients with GERD have a higher prevalence of asthma, and acid reflux—the backup of stomach acid into the esophagus—can cause airways to go into spasm and tighten. “Aggressive anti-reflux therapy in patients with asthma and GERD results in improvements in asthma outcome in as many as 70 percent to 80 percent of patients treated,” states a report in the American Journal of Medicine. The most common treatment for recurrent GERD is a class of drugs known as proton pump inhibitors (PPI), which includes Prevacid and Prilosec. PPIs have been connected to osteoporosis (bone-thinning), kidney problems and, most recently, dementia. You also might confer with your doctor about trying natural heartburn remedies first. Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, suggests taking slippery elm bark, which is widely available in places like Vitamin Shoppe and Amazon.
Take precautions when you exercise
It’s called exercise induced asthma: Up to 90 percent of asthmatics have experienced a flare-up during exercise or within five to 10 minutes of stopping a session, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Many people undergo asthma attacks only while exercising. Coughing is by far the most common symptom but other possibilities are wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. “To prevent flare-ups, some patients bring their inhalers with them while they exercise or they may pre-treat themselves with Albuterol, a short-acting drug that opens up airways,” says Dr. Taliercio. To reduce your odds of an attack, the AAFA suggests warming up for six to 10 minutes before you start a vigorous workout. Or switch to activities that don’t cause you to breathe fast, such as walking, playing softball, and doing yoga. Practicing yoga consistently may, in fact, reduce the severity of your asthma, suggests some older research.
Open electronics outside
New electronics products such as TVs and computers contain irritating chemicals. Bill Cunningham, an indoor air quality certified professional, told More.com that their packaging can trap these fumes, which could trigger your allergies, potentially causing an asthma attack. When you receive a new product, open it outside and let it air out for about a half hour before taking it inside, Cunningham advises. Here are other little steps that prevent allergies from flaring.
Pay attention to your mood
Feeling cranky? That might be a clue you’re about to experience an asthma attack, especially if other symptoms such as coughing are present. Asthma attacks reduce oxygen in your body, including your brain, which can influence your state of mind. WebMD lists “feeling tired, easily upset, grouchy, or moody,” as one sign of an impending attack. If you’re aware of early asthma attack warning signs, you can reduce the severity of a flare-up or even halt it by using a rescue inhaler.
Nix air fresheners and scented candles
You spend 90 percent of your life indoors, so indoor pollutants can be a big factor in how your asthma plays out. Air fresheners often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde that irritate the eyes and respiratory tract and can trigger asthmatic reactions. “About 20 percent of the population and 34 percent of people with asthma report health problems from air fresheners,” said Stanley Fineman, MD of the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic, at the 2011 annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Meanwhile, scented candles produce not just VOCs but also soot. “The toxicity characteristics of candle emissions match those of diesel emissions,” concluded an EPA study. It added: “Use of scented candles may contribute significant quantities of pollutants to the indoor environment, especially soot, benzene and lead.” If you want a fresh scent in your home without risking an asthma attack, open your windows to let in fresh air, suggested Dr. Fineman. Try these tips to improve the indoor air quality in your home.
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity is another condition that goes hand in hand with asthma. In 2010, a higher percentage of asthmatic Americans (38.8 percent) were obese (a BMI of 30 or over) than Americans without asthma (26.8 percent). “Obesity is associated significantly with the development of asthma, worsening asthma symptoms and poor asthma control,” according to the CDC. What’s the connection? “Fat tissue increases inflammation throughout the body, which might promote asthma, which is an inflammatory disease,” says Dr. Lockey. The good news is that losing weight can improve asthma symptoms. While dropping pounds is, of course, easier said than done, the possibility of reducing the severity of your asthma condition might provide just the motivation you need to change the number on your scale.
Don’t smoke cigarettes
Yes, duh. We all know that cigarette smoke (first- or second-hand) is a huge lung/throat irritant and can trigger asthma attacks. However, Americans with asthma are more likely to smoke than those without asthma—21 percent of people with asthma routinely light up compared to 17 percent of people without asthma. In case you know an asthma sufferer who smokes, here are some conclusions from two medical studies: “Asthma and active cigarette smoking interact to cause more severe symptoms, accelerated decline in lung function, and impaired short-term therapeutic response to corticosteroids [anti-inflammatories].” And: “Asthmatic patients who smoke share features similar to those found in the early stages of emphysema.” Here are 23 brilliant ideas for quitting smoking.