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Advice on living with asthma: 10 tips

August 24, 2009

by keito
Posted in LIFE

I was diagnosed with activity-induced asthma while in grammar school, and failed the methacholine challenge about 10 years back.  Since then, I’ve learned a lot things about how to live with and manage my (albeit mild) asthma.  A few tips:

1. Filtration is the key. HEPA filter air cleaners belong in your bedroom. Keep them away from the area where your head will be at night, however, because they do drop a lot of the dust they suck out of the air (though I did hear using the ionizer feature can make dust particles so small that filters—including the natural ones in your nose and throat—won’t stop them from getting into your lungs). Use a special allergen-trapping HEPA air filter on your furnace, readily available at hardware stores, Wal-Mart, you name it. And if you get a lot of dust coming from your air vents, or notice graying around vents on light colored walls or surfaces, you may want to put cheese cloth over vents in order to filter out the dirt.


Best Respiratory Disorders Hospitalsthe top 50 are ranked here on U.S. News & World Report.

National Jewish Medical Center
– ranked #1 for respiratory disease treatment for 12 years, their website contains info about their services as well as guidelines on H1N1 prevention and other health info.

Mayo Clinic
– more health info and guidelines from the #2-ranked medical facility for respiratory disease.

Can’t Breathe? Suspect VCD
– Carol Sidofsky has compiled a lot of information on VCD and continues to update it on this website.

2. Clean the right way. Vacuuming obsessively doesn’t help.  Studies have proven it!  (Although I can’t seem to find this info on the internet, I read it in a couple different print sources.)  Vacuuming more than once a week won’t change much, so give yourself a break. Use treated dust cloths if you’re not already; they pick up and hold the dust much better than, say, Swiffers.

3. Make your sleeping space asthma-friendly. DO keep a mattress cover over your mattress.  You can get covers for your pillows as well, but they tend to be crunchy, so wash or replace pillows every couple of years instead.   Keep pets out of your bedroom if possible.  You should also minimize the amount of papers in your bedroom—dust mites love them.

4. Find the right specialist. Definitely, definitely see a pulmonologist if you aren’t already.  A good pulmonologist not only treats your asthma but tries to improve your quality of life.  My experience has been that even allergists/immunologists can’t do this for patients the way a pulmonologist can.

If your asthma is still not under control after seeing a good pulmonologist, you should consider going straight for the best: National Jewish Medical Center (Denver, CO) the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN) and Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, MD), for example, are the top three places for treating asthma in the U.S., and may be able to straighten you out with a thorough evaluation.

5. Exercise. It may not be easy if you have exercise-induced asthma, but the worst thing you can do for yourself is to stop exercising, which can lead to deconditioning (been there, done that).  Exercise not only strengthens muscles but helps them use oxygen more efficiently.  You can start with small hand-held weights and light aerobic exercises, buy a yoga or Pilates DVD or take a class.  A hobby like golf, ballroom dancing or bowling can likewise motivate you to work your muscles without making you too short of breath to go on.

6. Try saying no to dairy. Some people are able to reduce or even take away all their asthma symptoms (!) by cutting dairy out of their diet.  While this hasn’t been the case for me, I once met someone who swore by it, and it is documented in plenty of other cases.  Worth a shot, right?

7. Get enough calcium. If your asthma is being treated with a steroid, your doctor should be keeping an eye on this, because steroids can inhibit your calcium absorption (inhalers like Advair and Symbicort contain corticosteroids).  You may even need to get a bone density scan in your late 20s, particularly if you have a family history or are in a high risk group for osteoporosis (which includes all women).  Tums and Caltrate are good supplements to try.

8. Get that vitamin D, too. Recent studies show that most people are deficient, and you need D to absorb calcium.  Low levels of vitamin D can make you feel tired on top of the breathing problems that already cause fatigue.  Blood tests can check on your D levels; you may need to take supplements unless you are always outside for about 15 minutes (without sunblock or sunscreen) each day, or if your levels are still just too low.

9. It might be VCD. Vocal cord dysfunction is little known and goes by a couple different names.  VCD is very often misdiagnosed as asthma, and some asthma patients may even have both.  It is very rarely fatal to adults, but is a suspected cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

VCD is caused by the vocal cords closing over airways when they should be open and relaxed; this often begins as the body’s way of protecting airways from conditions that can be very harmful to them, such as acid reflux or frequent or excessive postnasal drip.  Symptoms include sudden difficulty breathing even while resting, tightness in the throat, and lack of improvement from inhalers during “attacks” mistaken as asthma (according to, however, the inhaler Atrovent can prevent exercise-induced VCD attacks).

VCD will sometimes appear as a sudden dip in the exhale portion of spirometry, but can be definitively diagnosed with a laryngoscopy.  These tests aren’t much fun, but they only last a couple minutes, and it’s worth checking out if you think your symptoms could be VCD.  VCD is also easily treated with breathing exercises and by keeping the throat well-hydrated.

10. You are not your disease. My mother told me this early on, but there are always going to be days when it’s hard to believe.  It’s important to remember that everybody has their burdens in life, and that, thanks to modern medicine, asthma is a disease most of us are lucky enough to be able to live with, even fully function with.  Can’t run?  Can’t sit in a smoke-filled restaurant?  Had to carry a fake bouquet down the aisle at your wedding?  Who cares!  Take a moment to feel sorry for yourself if you have to, but then go on doing all the other things you can do in life.  The important thing to remember is that there is much more to you than whatever limitations your asthma puts on you, and much, much more that you can do with your day—not to mention your entire life.

  1. Nikki Saint Bautista permalink
    September 2, 2009 1:18 am

    Definitely looking into a filter system as working from home is killing me. Thanks for the excellent advice, keito. The fascinating thing about asthma is that it’s caused by all sorts of different things for different people. Whereas you have activity-induced asthma, I don’t. In fact, I’ve been relatively athletic my entire life (5 years of basketball in grade school; 4 years seasonal rotation of track, tennis and volleyball in high school; 3 years of a mix of swimming, kendo and kungfu in college) except for now, and my asthma symptoms are at its worst these days. Throughout my years as an athlete, the first thing they teach you is how to breathe. Although I think having forgotten to use these breathing techniques and exercising my lungs has contributed to my current struggles with asthma, there are certainly other triggers that factor into the symptoms–for example, air quality, heat, humidity, stress and reactions to prescribed drugs.

  2. November 18, 2009 9:02 pm

    As a long time asthma sufferer, I agree that one needs to do what one can, when one can.

    When it progresses further, no amount of resolve can help when you are lying unconscious in ICu with a vent tube doing your breathing for you for a few days.

    Something that I have learned is that different people are affected entirely differently by this deiease !

  3. keito permalink*
    November 20, 2009 4:34 pm

    It definitely is a matter of what works for you with asthma, which of course includes finding the right inhalor and identifying triggers. Check out the Letter from the Editor, The ongoing issue of asthma, if you’re interested, because the other problem with asthma is that the treatments that a person needs and that DO work just aren’t available to him or her for financial reasons (just look at Azmacort, a mast-cell stabilizer that is the best treatment for many, but not enough to make it worth it to the manufacturer. It’s going off the market December 31st).

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