The asthma diagnosis caught Mary Christopher short, yet deep down the 47-year-old executive wasn’t totally surprised. Family and friends had repeatedly suggested the possibility over the past year, but she had tossed off the comments.
“I didn’t understand what they were talking about when they said I was breathing funny. I didn’t think anything was wrong,” she explains.
Then Mary caught what she thought was a head cold. But this cold was different: “I couldn’t sleep at night; my chest felt heavy when I lay down. It was hard to breathe.” When these symptoms finally began to defeat her otherwise stoic nature, she made an appointment with an allergist.
Why an allergist and not a family practice physician? “I somehow felt this cold was different, and I wondered if allergies might be at the heart of it,” she explains. Her instincts paid off. The allergist analyzed breathing-function and skin-prick allergy tests, then presented Mary with the facts: She had asthma and she’d had it for a long time.
As she came to terms with the diagnosis, Mary says her first questions were “Just how long have I had asthma?” and “How many other people are just like me: living with asthma symptoms but totally unaware?”
Important questions. Without a diagnosis, there are no options for treatment. And without treatment, long-term airway inflammation can lead to irreversible airway obstruction.
“My doctor is optimistic that I’ll be able to breathe a lot better than I am right now,” Mary says, “but it is doubtful that I’ll ever achieve 100 percent of my lung function again.”
Truth or consequences
Mary had no idea that asthma was affecting her future. She thought her breathing was normal because that’s the way she had always breathed. Some other people play a denial game, ignoring their symptoms in fear of the truth. But both types share the same outcome: progression of a controllable disease.
It’s a scenario that shouldn’t occur. “It takes more work to get symptoms under control than it does to keep them there,” says Martha White, MD, director of research at the Institute for Asthma and Allergy in Wheaton, MD. “Furthermore, it takes more work to live with poorly controlled symptoms than it does to control them.”
“Patients who face and understand the realities of asthma fare better than those who do not,” she adds.
What are the realities?
- Asthma is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that claims the lives of 4,000 people a year in the U.S.
- Most asthma-related deaths are preventable.
- Symptoms can range from progressive and predictable to sudden and frightening.
- Asthma can slowly erode and redirect your life goals if left unchecked – or asthma can be so well controlled, you rarely experience symptoms.
- You have many options to override asthma’s hold on your life!
A roadmap to recovery
Asthma doesn’t have to sideline you, but fixing the underlying causes of this condition takes time and determination. The secret of success begins with making healthy choices, rather than relying solely on medication.
Start with a written asthma management plan developed just for you by a skilled asthma expert such as an allergist or pulmonologist. Armed with pulmonary-function and allergy test results, a complete medical history, and knowledge of your personal lifestyle and goals, you and your physician can mold a personalized treatment strategy – a roadmap to recovery.
As time goes on, you will learn to treat and prevent asthma symptoms daily, make informed decisions about medications, eliminate environmental exposures to allergens and irritants, eat a healthy diet, and enjoy daily exercise.
Your asthma symptoms will likely change from one season or year to the next as your immune system changes. Yet your ability to perceive and intercept symptoms will grow stronger with practice and experience.
“I look back and know that I honestly did not feel that anything was wrong with me,” Mary Christopher says. “I didn’t have compelling or dramatic symptoms. I wasn’t missing work and I’ve never gone to the hospital because of symptoms. Had it not been for this cold and three nights in a row where I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, I would not have gone to the allergist or realized the seriousness of my condition.” Then she adds, “My immediate goal is to increase my lung capacity from 50 percent to as best as it can be.”
Mary has many other questions, most of which will be answered over time. In the meanwhile, she has joined AANMA to learn as much as she can about asthma management techniques and keep up-to-date on the latest research. At home, she keeps track of her symptoms, medications, and large airway functions using a peak flow meter and a daily symptom diary. She visits the allergist every three weeks to fine-tune the treatment plan and adjust medications. And she’s begun a campaign to eliminate allergens and irritants in her office and her home.
“It’s all about baby steps. I’m getting healthier one day at a time.”
Could asthma be silently affecting you or someone you love?
Take this quiz.
Discuss any yes answers with your physician as soon as possible.
- Do friends, family, or coworkers ever tell you that you sound short of breath?
- Is your speech often choppy?
- Do you cough or wheeze when laughing?
- Do your lips ever lose color? Do they or your fingernails turn blue?
- Do you avoid physical activities, sports, or hobbies that require increased lung power?
- Is it more difficult to breathe when lying down than when sitting up?
- Do you cough at night? Does coughing wake you or other family members?
- Do you get frequent head colds, sinus infections, or have allergy symptoms that linger?
- Does every cold seem to settle into your chest?
Written by: Nancy Sander, president and founder, Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics
First published: Allergy & Asthma Today, Summer 2003
Updated: February 2009