Asthma? Tips To Breath Easier

Asthma affects more than 15 million Americans, including nearly five million children. If you or someone you know suffers from asthma a new book, "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Taking Control of Asthma," answers many of the questions you might have.

The book's co-author, Dr. Christopher Fanta tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm asthma is on the rise particularly in industrialized countries, but pollution is not to blame.

He says, "Alternative theories include the following: One is that we spend more time indoors, exposed to those allergens that trigger allergic-type responses, including allergy of the bronchial tubes or asthma."

Another interesting theory is that as our world has become more germ-free our immune systems have lost strength and are less able to drive allergic reactions away from the lungs.

Asthma is a disease that tends to narrow the breathing passages in response to certain stimuli, i.e. such as recations to dust or pet dander. But airways are not always narrowed; sometimes they are hypersensitive, readily becoming inflamed when exposed to various substances like allergens from cats, dogs, feathers, and pollen; allergenic foods like peanuts, milk, or eggs; and irritants like tobacco smoke, exercise, strong scents, or air pollutants.

Asthma can develop at any age, the aftermath perhaps of bronchitis or pneumonia. It most commonly appears in early childhood. About a third of children seem to outgrow it, usually in adolescence, but most continue to have the disease to some degree for life.

Dr. Fanta and his colleagues wrote this book for three reasons:

First, the perception of asthma has changed. For example, 10 or 15 years ago, asthma was treated as an episodic problem. But now the medical establishment better understands that treatment should be ongoing, which can make a big difference.

Second, therapies and treatments for asthma have radically changed. It has remarkably advanced in "just a generation or two." People of our grandparents' generation sought relief by smoking cigarettes that were filled with dried leave of a plant that was supposed to have medicinal properties that relieved congestion. But now, you can relieve your attacks with a wide variety of medications, from inhalers to pills. And there are medications available that prevent future attacks.

Third, people are taking more action as they combat asthma.

The following are "Five Steps To Becoming Asthma Smart" according to the book:
  1. Learn all that you can about asthma. According to the book, many of us simply take breathing for granted. Once you suffer from asthma or know someone who does, you will learn that understanding how your lungs work is important. When you learn about asthma, you can seek better treatment options.

  2. Get the most out of your visit to the doctor. You should come to your visits with questions. For example, ask: "Are these still the best medications for me to be taking?" Or "Should I consider increasing or decreasing my medication?" "What is the long-term goal for me using the current medication?"

  3. Prevent asthma problems before they occur. You can prevent flare-ups in two ways: avoid things that set off your asthma and take preventive medication. So once you've been diagnosed, try to keep a list of when you notice your asthma getting worse - like when you go visit a friend who owns a cat or when you exercise outside.

  4. Know when you are getting into trouble with your asthma. Sometimes it's easy to ignore asthma attacks because sometimes they come on gradually. If you're not attentive to early signs of worsening asthma, it may seem as though severe breathing difficulty had come on "suddenly." So you should notice if your breathing seems a little bit of a struggle, so that you can reduce whatever physical activity you are doing. You may also blame your worsening cough to a cold and not associate it with your asthma. The danger is that all this happens while your air passageways are narrowing and it becomes progressively more difficult to move air in and out of your lungs.

  5. Be ready to respond to worsening of your asthma. Recognizing that your asthma has gotten worse is half the battle; the other half is being prepared to take action to get it back under control. Have a plan. You need to know which medications will help you. It's essential to know how and where to get help.

Dr. Fanta is a director of Partners Asthma Center and is one of the cofounders. He is a member of the Pulmonary and Critical care Division at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He is also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.