Living with asthma can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be debilitating, physicians say.
"When asthma is well-controlled, (asthmatics) should be able to do all the things a normal person can without having trouble breathing," said Dr. Dennis Ownby, the head of the allergy section at the Medical College of Georgia and a professor of pediatrics and medicine.
As autumn arrives, more than 20 million Americans suffering from asthma - a respiratory condition that inflames the lungs and airways - might experience flare-ups.
"During colder weather, especially late fall, winter and early spring, is the time when most asthmatics suffer an exacerbation," said Yvonne Rivers, a registered nurse and the coordinator of the Community Asthma Program provided by the Neighborhood Improvement Project. "Some asthmatics are bothered by breathing the cooler air."
The high rate of colds and flu, in addition to more time spent indoors, also creates problems for asthmatics during fall and winter months.
"Many things can trigger asthma attacks. The most common trigger for children and young adults is exercise or activity," Dr. Ownby said. "But even sudden changes, like laughing and crying, can trigger an asthma attack or viral infections, like colds, can cause attacks."
Other triggers include irritants such as dust, smoke, pet dander or fumes; stress; and chemical reactions to ingredients in foods and medicines, such as sulfides.
Because asthmatics have supersensitive airways, Ms. Rivers said, the irritants that might cause attacks can vary from patient to patient.
Asthmatics are dealing with an incurable condition, Ms. Rivers said, noting that an asthma diagnosis doesn't have to mean diminished quality of life.
"While there is no cure for asthma, and people do not outgrow it, since it is a chronic condition, it is well-suited to being managed and kept under control," Ms. Rivers said.
Getting the right information is key, said Nancy Sander, the president and founder of the Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics.
"There are practical, pro-active ways of dealing with asthma," Ms. Sander said. "Once you get through that hump, that learning curve of trying to figure out what you're allergic to, trying to get the environment right, and taking the medicines, you can see that living with asthma is not a burden to accommodate over a lifetime but one of life's challenges."
That doesn't mean it's easy
"Asthma is definitely a complex, deceptive and potentially life-threatening disease," Ms. Sander said. "It requires hundreds, literally hundreds, of pieces of information to be absorbed to deal with it."
Dr. Ownby said the key to controlling asthma is a matter of three things: avoiding the triggers that bring on asthma attacks, decreasing irritants as much as possible and taking prescribed medicines on a regular basis.
To learn the triggers, Dr. Ownby suggests patients not only observe environmental factors but also see an allergist to discover potential allergens.
"Removing dust or mold, or things like that will only work if they are allergic to that," he said. "(Patients) should be evaluated for allergies. It really makes a big difference when they are trying to control them and most people are trying to do that."
The final component, and arguably the most important in managing asthma, is working with a physician and following a treatment regimen, Dr. Ownby said.
"The other thing is to recognize it is a chronic disease and needs regular medical care. They shouldn't wait until the child is really sick before calling the doctor," he said.
Because the lungs are always inflamed to some degree, Dr. Ownby said, taking medicine prevents the symptoms of wheezing and struggling for breath.
"They need to make sure the patient is taking medicines as described," he said. "Asthma is very similar to diabetes ... you have to take medication regularly to limit attacks."
Managing asthma is a continuing process with no quick fix, Ms. Sander said. "It's not going to be one product, one solution that will work for every person," she said, "but it is possible to work through that horrific stage between diagnosis and control. And once you're there, you can pretty much keep from going back."
Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.