Almost every nerdy character ever produced by Hollywood has come equipped with an inhaler.
To individuals who suffer from asthma, however, the condition is no laughing matter.
According to the World Health Organisation, asthma affects more than 230 million people worldwide, and results in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.
“Six out of 10 people with asthma do not have control of their disease,” said Melissa Shaw, a respiratory therapist. “Their poorly controlled asthma may lead to a severe, life-threatening asthma attack and permanent lung damage.”
Taking control of a condition that could flare up at any moment may seem like a daunting task, but learning more about asthma, its symptoms and treatments can enable individuals with asthma to reduce their risk of suffering from an attack.
Patterns and triggers
According to Ms Shaw, asthma is not a condition that affects all sufferers uniformly.
“There is no one symptom, physical characteristic or laboratory test that defines asthma,” she said. “Asthma is recognised from a pattern of symptoms.”
These symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightening in the chest.
“These symptoms are usually associated with widespread but variable airflow or reversible airflow obstruction,” Ms Shaw said.
Asthma is not a contagious condition, instead it is often passed down hereditarily or results from environmental factors.
Most asthma attacks are caused by what is known as a trigger. Common triggers can include certain medicines, foods, allergens like pollen and dust, smoke, changes in the weather, exercise or even excessive emotions.
“Triggers often bring on asthma attacks,” Ms Shaw said. “A trigger is any thing or condition that causes inflammation in the airways… which then leads to asthma symptoms.”
According to Ms Shaw, one of the most important things for those with asthma to do is identify their triggers and avoid them.
The only exception to this rule is exercise. “There are a great number of benefits to exercise including improving efficiency of heart and lungs which definitely outweigh the risks,” Ms Shaw said.
The inhaler is the most widely recognised treatment method for symptoms, but media portrayals give an inaccurate portrayal of how often they should be used.
While cartoon and movie characters with asthma seem to be constantly reaching for their inhalers, Ms Shaw said that if a real person were to use their inhaler that often, medical attention may be required.
“Persons with asthma should monitor their use of the reliever medication,” she said. “If the reliever is used two times a week or more than two nights per month due to asthma symptoms, such as cough or wheeze, then the asthma is not under control.”
Despite the fact that individuals with asthma should not have to use their inhalers very often, they should still have access to it at all times in case of an emergency.
“All individuals with asthma should have access to a fast-acting reliever bronchodilator,” Ms Shaw said.
Asthma medication can be taken orally or inhaled. Known as corticosteroids, these medications help control asthma symptoms.
“Corticosteroids are not anabolic steroids,” Ms Shaw said, explaining that anabolic steroids are used to increase muscle and physical performance.
“Corticosteroids are hormones normally produced by the body and physicians prescribe in smaller doses for treatment of airway inflammation,” she added.
Ms Shaw said prescribed controllers should be taken everyday and that the patient should not come off the medication unless their doctor instructs them to, even if their symptoms seem to have disappeared.
She also warned that certain traditional, homemade treatments might actually worsen the condition, and should be discussed with a doctor before attempting.
“Some are quite harmful and may cause more problems and be of no benefit for treatment of asthma,” she said, citing ganja tea, wood-burning smoke and placing tree branches under the bed of an asthmatic as examples of traditional remedies that may negatively affect those suffering from asthma.
In the event of a medical emergency caused by an asthma attack, Ms Shaw says that emergency help should be sought immediately if the attack is severe or if patient does not respond to medication.
Asthma and kids
According to Ms Shaw, children are the demographic most vulnerable to asthma attacks.
“Asthma is the most chronic disorder in children,” she said.
She explained that while most asthmatic children show signs of wheezing, coughing can also be a symptom of asthma.
“Sometimes a persistent cough may be the asthmatic symptom,” she said. “Coughing during or after vigorous playing, running or crying or recurrent coughing at night is also a common sign seen in children.”
As traditional tests of lung functionality cannot be performed on children under the age of six, certain symptoms can be difficult to spot in children.
“The American Lung Association reports that ‘hidden asthma’ is a term applied to children whose asthma is difficult to assess by usual signs and symptoms,” Ms Shaw said. “If a child has breathing difficulties and/or recurrent coughing particularly at night and self limits physical activities … then [the] child may have airway obstruction.”
While some children may have asthma all their lives, others can seemingly outgrow the condition.
“Some children continue to have asthma throughout life and others have improvements in their asthma symptoms during adolescence and young adult-hood and their asthma does not return, and for others the symptoms may return in midlife or later,” Ms Shaw said.
Even those individuals for whom asthma is a constant part of their lives, however, Ms Shaw says that improvement is possible if the condition is treated correctly and consistently.
“Persons with asthma can gain control working with a health care team who provides asthma education and follow-up,” she said.