Straight, No Chaser: Understanding Asthma – Toothpicks and Snot (Part 2 of 2)

As we move into discussing asthma treatment, remember that asthmatics die at an alarming rate.  I mentioned yesterday (and it bears repeating) that death rates have increased over 50% in the last few decades.  If you’re an asthmatic, avoid taking care of yourself at your own peril.  Your next asthma attack could be your last.
The other thing to remember is that asthma is a reversible disease – until it’s not.  At some point (beginning somewhere around age 35 or so), the ongoing inflammation and damage to the lungs will create some irreversible changes, and then the situation’s completely different, possibly predisposing asthmatics to other conditions such as chronic bronchitis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and lung cancer.  This simply reiterates the importance of identifying and removing those triggers.
Given that, let’s talk about asthma control as treatment.  Consider the following quick tips you might use to help you reduce or virtually eliminate asthma attacks:

  • Avoid cigarette smoke (including second hand smoke) like the plague!
  • Avoid long haired animals, especially cats.
  • Avoid shaggy carpets, window treatments or other household fixtures that retain dust.
  • If you’re spraying any kind of aerosol, if it’s allergy season, if you’re handling trash, or if you react to cold weather, wear a mask while you’re doing it.  It’s better to not look cool for a few moments than to have to look at an emergency room for a few hours or a hospital room for a few days.
  • Be careful to avoid colds and the flu.  Get that flu shot yearly.

If and when all of this fails, and you’re actually in the midst of an asthma attack, treatment options primarily center around two types of medications.

  • Short (and quick) acting bronchodilators (e.g. albuterol, ventolin, proventil, xopenex, alupent, maxair) functionally serve as props (‘toothpicks’, no not real ones, and don’t try to use toothpicks at home) to keep the airways open against the onslaught of mucous buildup inside the lungs combined with other inflammatory changes trying to clog the airways.  These medications do not treat the underlying condition.  They only buy you time and attempt to keep the airways open for…
  • Steroids (e.g. prednisone, prelone, orapred, solumedrol, decadron – none of which are the muscle building kind) are the mainstay of acute asthma treatment, as they combat the inflammatory reaction and other changes that cause the asthma attack.  One can functionally think of steroids as a dump truck moving in to scoop the snot out of the airways.  The only issue with the steroids is they take 2-4 hours to start working, so you have to both get them on board as early as possible while continuing to use the bronchodilators to stem the tide until the steroids kick in.

If you are not successful in avoiding those triggers over the long term, you may need to be placed on ‘controller’ medications at home, which include lower doses of long-acting bronchodilators and steroids.
So in summary, the best treatment of asthma is management of its causes.  Avoid the triggers, thus reducing your acute attacks.  Become educated about signs of an attack.  When needed, get help sooner rather than later.  And always keep an inhaler on you.  It could be the difference between life and death.
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0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: Understanding Asthma – Toothpicks and Snot (Part 2 of 2)

  1. What you describe here sounds very much like COPD and Emphysema. Are these conditions related to Asthma?

    1. For the purposes of this conversation, very much so, and although technically incorrect, it’s convenient to think of COPD as a more advanced and destructive form of asthma (actually what they share in common is they’re both lung diseases defined by obstruction of airflow, mostly by mucous and other consequences of lung inflammation. Asthma and COPD share important treatments strategies). However, there are some very important functional differences. Most importantly, regarding to structural damage to lung tissue, asthma is a reversible disease, COPD is not. By the way, COPD is the general name for the condition, emphysema is a form of COPD.

      1. Huh. … thought it was the other way around (“… COPD is the general name for the condition, emphysema is a form for COPD”) Thanks for clarifying.

  2. Sometimes after I spray an aerosol I have a coughing spell is this the beginning of asthma or is this just an allergic reaction. I’ll take the latter …

    1. Thanks, RV. That’s actually a perfect illustration of the hypersensitivity and hyperreactivity I was describing as the beginning of an asthma attack. Those irritants likely will cause spasms of your airways with subsequent development of mucous and wheezing. Given that you’ve identified one of your triggers, I’d suggest you try wearing a mask when you spray and keeping your inhaler nearby. Good luck!

  3. As a result of your article I better understand the challenges of my friends and family members who are asthmatic. This will cause me to be more considerate and avoid actions that may attribute to or trigger an attack. Knowledge is power! Thank you.