What I Wish Others Understood About Asthma and the Air We Breathe


I grew up breathing second-hand cigarette smoke, but I didn’t develop asthma until I was in my late 40s and early 50s. At first, I was diagnosed with cough variant asthma, because instead of wheezing, I would have an uncontrollable cough that usually started with a cold. My asthma is not well-controlled with medications, and I have been unable to work as a registered nurse for the past three years because every time I got a virus, I would end up wheezing and coughing and being short of breath for weeks. It is really hard to avoid airborne germs when you work in a hospital. With an immune problem that makes me more prone to infections as well, I was spending most of my days sick.

Now asthma is a serious disease that can quickly go from “I’m breathing easily” to “Yikes! I need to go to the ER now! I can’t get enough air!” My biggest frustration is that I can’t control what the air is like in public places. Those without lung problems might not know how hard certain things can make it for people with lung disease to breathe. Not being able to breathe easily is scary and potentially deadly. One example of air quality causing breathing problems happened when my past employer had a large quantity of mulch spread around the outside of the building. The combination of a strong aroma and mold made it impossible to walk from the parking lot to the building without getting an asthma attack. If they had put out a notice about it beforehand, I could have used a mask and saved myself misery. But some businesses don’t announce these things because people don’t always realize mulch can cause breathing difficulties.

Strong odors from tobacco products (like cigarette smoke), perfumes, soaps and cleaning solutions can cause an asthma attack, so I have to avoid these things also. This makes getting to the unscented laundry detergent another one of those hold-your-breath-and-hurry projects.

Another practice that affects air quality is burning household trash or yard waste. Those who burn these items are within their rights if it is allowed in their community. But I feel angry and frustrated when I have to move inside or close my windows because others are burning trash. Why does the right to burn garbage supersede my right to breathe?

Unfortunately, I don’t always remember these things, so every once in a while I get an asthma attack from not paying attention. Recently, I had to drive into the city to see my specialist. It was a hot, humid day. On top of that, the parking garage was crowded due to construction; there were too few parking spaces for all the people who had appointments that day. After driving around for 20 minutes seeking a parking space, I was running late. I forgot the mask in my purse, rushed through the garage to my appointment and arrived with a full blown asthma attack! I should have put my mask on, but honestly I don’t want to need a mask. They are hot and uncomfortable and can make it feel harder to breathe. I also feel self-conscious with one on.

So if you have healthy lungs, please remember that what you do can affect the air those of us with asthma breathe as well as your own air. For example, if you burn trash or yard waste, consider exploring alternative ways to get rid of it. Or if you have associates, friends or family members with lung disease, consider not wearing strong smelling perfumes or colognes around them or using strong smelling cleaning products around them.

Be an advocate for clean air in your community!

And lastly, if you have a loved one with asthma, remind them to take and use a mask when air conditions warrant it. They will likely be grateful you did!

Image via Thinkstock Images

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