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How Asthma Changed My Awareness of Modern Medicine

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I spent nearly a decade working for pediatric therapists, and because of this I was always surrounded by children. Not once did I ever get the flu! Ear infections? Sure. Strep? Of course. But I’ve always been big on getting my annual vaccine, and I chalked up my “flu free zone” to just that: vaccines rock.

I’ve been in my new corporate job for just under two years. Since I’ve been here I’ve had an ear infection, bronchitis and the flu, twice! Turns out adults are just as yucky as kids!

About a year into my new position I was diagnosed with asthma. This was a whole new ballgame for me: if there’s one thing that’s always worked well, it’s my lungs. Well, I usually get an upper respiratory infection a year, but breathing, in general, always worked. I may have a decent assortment of diagnoses (fibromyalgia, gastroparesis, interstitial cystitis) but hey, breathing? This has been completely off my radar until asthma came along.

So after a little trial and error, I got put on a complex inhaler twice a day, plus another allergy med at night. Everything has seemed generally well managed, and I’ve rarely had to use my emergency inhaler. And the times I have it’s been more for tightness and discomfort, as until just last week, I never had a full asthma attack.

Then comes influenza type b.

This was my first real illness since the asthma diagnosis and it completely walloped me. I also happen to be one of those lucky people who react poorly to flu antiviral medication, making me feel extremely foggy and fuzzy for the duration. But the coughing – and coughing – was what made it worse. I had to use my emergency inhaler twice a day, just to be moderately functional, and got way less sleep than I needed since the coughing kept me up at night (even with those glorious cough medicine combinations that are labeled Severe Cold and Flu – PM).

I became worried that the flu might be morphing into bronchitis or pneumonia. So after four and half days of feeling quite miserable, I went to an urgent care who put me on high powered steroids. My lungs sounded clear and it seemed more likely that my coughing was a combination of flu and asthma, rather than flu morphing into my usual URIs.

I wasn’t too sure about the plan (because frankly, I was sick of being sick and was sort of hoping that a good old antibiotic could be the cure – but didn’t want to take it if it wasn’t necessary). I was told that if I’m still coughing in three days like this, to return for a chest X-ray to make sure. And you know what? Within hours of getting home, I had my very first full on, all out, holy hell asthma attack. Coughing so hard I could barely breathe, tears streaming down my face. I could barely hold my breath for three seconds on the first puff of the emergency inhaler, waited a few minutes, and then did a second one.

All in all, the asthma attack lasted less than five minutes, but I felt like a wet rag for the next hour. And frankly, it scared me too. I was sure now that it was more asthma than an URI, and by the time I went to bed the oral steroids kicked in enough to seriously tamper the cough. Of course, I couldn’t fully sleep because I was jittery due to the oral steroids, but you know what? Laying there, under my comforter, it was the first time in five nights that I wasn’t laying there feeling wrecked by coughing. I was comfortable, cozy and decided that right now if I have to pick between intermittent sleep due to painful coughing, or intermittent sleep due to steroids, I pick the latter.

For me, it was a good reminder (and it’s probably a good reminder especially for those of us with comprehensive health conditions) that there’s still so many things my body does well. That my body isn’t, in its entirety, biological machinery that hasn’t been coded properly. And that sometimes, my body even cooperates during my lowest moments: shockingly, I didn’t have a major fibromyalgia episode during the flu. I didn’t experience a major gastroparesis flare-up. I did have a bit of interstitial cystitis pain, but that was partially due to me experimenting with coconut water as part of staying hydrated (and coconut water has the ever-dreaded potassium in it).

It also reminded me to be thankful that we have some medical advances that make illness (chronic or not) better. I’m still coughing, but nowhere near as much as before. Those oral steroids kicked in in under 12 hours, and I have another week to go during the taper off process. The emergency inhaler is a literal lifesaver. I know I’m lucky live in an area where I’m surrounded by a large network of high quality health providers that are all connected by computer, and I’m able to go to one of several walk in/immediate care/urgent care clinics between 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. daily.

Sometimes I get frustrated about how little we know about the body. About chronic health conditions and how they’re all related. That medications that make us functional can be so expensive. But think about just how far science has come in the last 100 years – we now have vaccines for the flu, anti-viral medications, asthma inhalers, doctors who can communicate and view your chart by computer. It seems small beans, and in many ways it is, but in the last two weeks for me, the beans added up to a lot.

This story originally appeared on Salt and Sage.

Getty Image by proksima

Originally published: April 6, 2018
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