Manage asthma to breathe easier

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— What do you call a health threat that results in two million annual visits to hospital emergency departments and costs Americans $14 billion a year?

Asthma.

May is Asthma Awareness month, designed to increase public understanding of this serious chronic illness that affects more than 300 million people worldwide.

Asthma affects the airways that carry oxygen into and out of the lungs. The disease causes inflammation and swelling of the airways. Certain substances and behaviors - called "triggers" - can irritate and further restrict the airways, creating asthma attacks that literally leave people gasping for air.

"Asthma is a growing health concern for children and adults," said Bill Moore, director of respiratory care services at Yampa Valley Medical Center. "We continue to diagnose new cases of asthma here."

Moore and his staff administer a definitive diagnostic test for asthma using a plethysmograph, new high-tech equipment obtained by YVMC this year. Tests are interpreted by a board-certified pulmonologist.

Diagnosis is a vitally important part of managing this disease, Moore said.

"Knowledge is empowerment," he noted. "Life is much better for people who have asthma when they use the appropriate medication and limit their exposure to irritants that can trigger attacks."

Common environmental and behavioral triggers include:

- Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke

- Air pollution

- Animal dander from furry pets

- Dust mites

- Mold

- Weather and humidity changes

- Some medicines, foods and food additives

- Strenuous exercise

- Strong emotions

"Asthma is similar to diabetes in that it is a chronic disease that needs to be managed all the time," Moore said. "Undiagnosed or unmanaged asthma can be life-threatening."

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 5,000 lives are lost annually to this illness. That is why the EPA and many health organizations are providing education and awareness programs during May.

Moore recommends paying attention to one's breathing, especially after exercising, and being aware of the signs of asthma. These include:

- Shortness of breath, feeling like you can't catch your breath or get enough air in or out of your lungs

- Coughing, especially at night or early in the morning

- Increased mucus production in lungs

- Wheezing - a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe

- Chest tightness or a feeling of being squeezed

- Faster or noisy breathing

Incidences and severity of asthma attacks vary greatly. They can occur every few months or every day and range from annoying to alarming. Exercise-induced asthma can occur among people who do not otherwise experience breathing problems.

"Maybe you wheeze after you run or exercise, and after resting for a while, your breath returns to normal," Moore said. "You could be okay, or you could have asthma. It's important to know for certain."

Medication is a major component of managing asthma. The good news is that the quality of asthma medications is improving. In the past, patients might have had to take multiple medications many times a day and suffer unpleasant side effects, Moore said. Now, many people need only take one medication once a day.

"Patients also need to make a commitment to understanding their asthma and the importance of controlling symptoms," Moore said. He strongly recommends daily measurement and recording of "peak flows," a simple respiratory test. Periodic physician visits and pulmonary function testing also are important.

"All of these things combine to drastically reduce the number of attacks and help asthmatics breath easier," Moore said.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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