An asthma attack is scary stuff — and living in fear of the next attack is no picnic, either.
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Pulmonary medicine doctor Mani Latifi, MD, shares three asthma pitfalls to avoid so those inhales and exhales stay nice and smooth.
1. Don’t shove your asthma action plan in a drawer
Your asthma triggers are unique to you — that’s why every person diagnosed with mild-to-severe persistent asthma should have an asthma action plan. Don’t have one? Then stop right now and message your provider to request one.
If you do, make sure to keep it handy. “Most problems occur when you don’t follow your plan,” Dr. Latifi explains. “Your plan outlines all the do’s and don’ts, so it’s easy to stay one step ahead of an attack.”
The plan is all about maintaining your peak flow rate, which measures how fast air moves out of your lungs, he says. To get this number:
- When your asthma is well controlled, your provider records your rate using a peak flow meter.
- At home, continue to measure your peak flow, so you know if you’re closing in on troubled times.
“Don’t wait until you feel symptoms to take a measurement,” Dr. Latifi says. “Be proactive and stay on top of your peak flow to help prevent flare-ups from happening in the first place.”
2. Don’t forget your asthma inhalers
Your asthma action plan also identifies other ways to keep your asthma in line, like using a rescue inhaler to provide short-term symptom relief and a maintenance inhaler that delivers medicine every day for long-term asthma control.
“If your asthma is severe enough to require daily medications, don’t think ‘I’m fine, I don’t need my inhaler today,’” says Dr. Latifi. “That’s a mistake. Daily controllers like steroid inhalers prevent flare-ups from occurring. They keep airway inflammation — the cause of asthma — under control.”
Once you experience symptoms, your asthma has already started to spiral out of control. Even at this point, many people push off treatment. They may try to ride out the symptoms for a few days and see if the situation improves.
But don’t wait, Dr. Latifi urges: “If you feel symptoms, use your rescue inhaler and contact your provider who may suggest you come in for a treatment. Asthma is life-threatening, so waiting even a few days can land you in the emergency room or a hospital bed.”
He offers two additional tips for asthma medicines:
- Use a spacer: A spacer disperses the drug more efficiently so the lungs can quickly put it to use. It also results in less of the medicine sticking to your mouth and throat.
- Rinse your mouth: Rinsing may help you avoid thrush, a white film in the back of your mouth and throat. Steroid inhalers can lead to thrush because the steroid messes with the bacterial balance of your palate.
3. Don’t ignore asthma triggers
“Sometimes we don’t know what the triggers are, but with a little extra attention, you and your provider can usually identify what leads to an asthma attack,” says Dr. Latifi. “Whenever possible, your asthma action plan will identify your triggers.”
Common triggers include:
Allergens. An allergic reaction may lead to an asthma attack. Common allergens include:
- Dust mites.
- Dog dander.
- Cockroach dander.
To combat allergy-triggered asthma:
- Use dust mite covers on bedding and furniture.
- Convert to hardwood floors, if that’s doable.
- Try over-the-counter or prescription allergy medicines or see an allergist to get allergy shots.
- Keep tabs on pollen counts by checking weather apps to see whether tree, grass or weed pollens are high.
Irritants. Like with allergens, sometimes an asthmatic reaction can be caused by irritants such as:
- Smoke particles.
- Exhaust from cars (especially if you live in an urban environment).
“Sometimes the irritants are workplace-related, and you’ll need to identify ways to manage the exposure,” Dr. Latifi says. “You may need to wear a dust mask or respirator to prevent inhaling something that can trigger an attack.”
He also recommends using your weather app to keep tabs on air quality wherever you are: “You might look out and think it’s a beautiful spring day, but when you check the app you find the air quality is low. In that case, minimize the time you spend outside.”
Co-Occurring health conditions. Sometimes, unrelated conditions can trigger asthma. Seasonal allergies like hay fever can cause inflammation in the nose, just like allergens cause inflammation in your lungs.
“Sinus inflammation will frequently trigger asthma,” says Dr. Latifi. “We try and control triggers of sinus problems through medicines, including nasal sprays.”
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the backward flow of stomach acids into the esophagus, can irritate the airways and lungs, making asthma worse. Manage GERD (and asthma) with changes like eating smaller meals, raising the head of your bed or using reflux medications.
An asthma plan helps you breathe easy
Even if you have an asthma action plan, don’t forget to stay in touch with your provider. A doctor can help monitor whether your asthma is under control or if you have a serious need that requires attention.
And if you enter the asthma danger zone, don’t dawdle — message your doctor then head to the nearest emergency room for immediate care.