Magazine article USA TODAY

Living with Asthma

Magazine article USA TODAY

Living with Asthma

Article excerpt

He scene around the table was not unusual - four classmates gathered together for dinner at a favorite campus restaurant. However, one member of the group - Pam - suddenly found it difficult to breathe and began gasping for air and wheezing. It felt as though someone was squeezing the air out of her lungs. Understandably, she began to panic, making it even harder for her to breathe.

Pam's friends rushed her to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, where she was treated with a medication that rapidly opened the airways in her lungs and provided relief from the frightening ordeal. The physician who took care of Pam diagnosed her problem as a respiratory condition. Later, after performing various tests, the doctor defined the diagnosis as asthma, but what caused the attack? After much discussion, he determined that it might have been exposure to animal dander on the clothing of one of the friends with whom Pam had been having dinner that evening. The troubling incident occurred 11 years ago. Today, Pam is a healthy, energetic 30-year-old who enjoys jogging.

Lisa, a 41-year-old nurse, also knows what it is like to experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness. Unlike Pam, however, Lisa has lived with asthma symptoms since she was an infant.

As a child, her daily activities often were limited, and there were many days and sometimes even weeks when she could not go to school or play actively outside with the other children. Today, all that has changed. With proper medication, Lisa, like many people with asthma, leads an active life. She currently is an aerobics instructor and avid runner.

Pam and Lisa are not alone. An estimated 9-12,000,000 other Americans also live with asthma.

Asthma attacks can be as brief as a few minutes or as long as several hours or days. They may be brought on by pollutants, cold air, exercise, seasonal pollen, bacterial and viral infections, and even emotional upset such as anxiety or stress. Although outdoor pollution long has been known to trigger asthma attacks, growing evidence points to indoor air pollution as a significant factor in asthma, allergic rhinitis, and other respiratory diseases.

According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, people today spend more than 90% of their time indoors. During the last several decades, substantial improvements in building construction have increased heating and air-conditioning efficiency. According to Emil J. Bardana, head of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Oregon Health Science Center in Portland, "sealing out the outside air has increased the number of allergens and irritants inside." These include dust mites, animal dander, perfumes, mold spores, tobacco smoke, and, at work, fumes from fresh paint and cleaning agents, chemical fibers from carpeting, and resins used in plastics. Improvements in building efficiency have meant that these allergens, which normally escape through windows, remain trapped inside and recirculate through ventilating systems. Deteriorating indoor air quality has spurred research by Bardana and others on building-related illnesses, such as "occupational" asthma and allergic rhinitis, dermatitis, Legionnaires' disease, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Cold air and exercise also can act as triggers of asthma attacks. Kevin, a 27-year-old New Yorker, experienced many of the same distressing symptoms that Pam did. The only difference was that his symptoms would occur regularly after his daily two-mile run. He first noticed the problem in October several years ago. As the weather began getting cold, his usual huffing and puffing at the end of his workout turned into bona fide wheezing.

Concerned because these symptoms continued frequently throughout the fall and winter, he mentioned the problem to his doctor during a regular checkup. After several respiratory stress tests, Kevin was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma (EIA). …

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