Debbie Valentini’s childhood was challenging, to say the least. Her infancy was largely spent in hospital, where doctors attempted to keep her asthma in check while trying to determine what triggered her wheezing, difficulty breathing and full-fledged asthma attacks. Her condition, diagnosed at the age of just one month, also led to stress for her family.
“My mother had to go to great lengths to make sure my environment was dust-free and the air was at the right humidity and not too hot,” says Valentini, who’s now 55. “I had to take a lot of oral steroids. I could never keep up to my peers in long-distance running or swimming; now I know that it was my asthma.”
More than 50 years later, asthma treatment has changed dramatically, as Valentini can attest. Like her, once they’ve been diagnosed and their triggers identified, most asthmatics can lead very normal lives and undertake activities they love. The key is managing symptoms and keeping on top of any changes to prevent flare-ups.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a condition in which the airways are hypersensitive and become inflamed when exposed to viruses, allergens such as smoke, dust or pollens, or chemical odours. The inflammation leads to:
- Swollen airways
- Increased production of mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Decreased oxygen intake
Severe attacks can result in death. The Asthma Society of Canada says 250 Canadians die of asthma each year.
And many Canadians suffer from the disease. Asthma accounts for approximately 80% of chronic respiratory disease in Canada, according to Carole Madeley, director, Respiratory Health Programs at the Ontario Lung Association. “While the number of new individuals who have developed asthma seems to be relatively stable compared to the asthma epidemic in the 80s and 90s, there is an overall increase in the number of people living with asthma, particularly children,” she says.
Another issue is that most asthmatics don’t have their condition under control, says Meridene Haynes, a certified asthma educator at the Asthma Society of Canada. This results in a higher rate of breakthrough symptoms (occurring despite medication) such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
New treatments for asthma
Fortunately, new treatments have emerged that can effectively control symptoms. These include:
- Corticosteroids, usually via puffers, which reduce inflammation
- Bronchodilators such as long-acting beta agonists, which can open airways and improve breathing
- Leukotriene receptor antagonists, which inhibit the compounds the body produces that cause inflammation
Lifestyle modifications are also an option, says Kate Whimster, a Toronto-based naturopath. She suggests anti-inflammatory treatment through herbs and supplements, breathing exercises, and identifying food sensitivities, either using an elimination diet or via food-sensitivity testing. “When someone feels better, they have more energy and focus to put to changing the underlying causes,” she says.
Identifying those triggers, whether they be food-related, environmental or chemical, can help asthmatics avoid them and reduce their symptoms, says Haynes. “All persons with asthma should be aware of their triggers,” she says.
If you’ve just been diagnosed with asthma:
- Get an action plan from your health care provider to help you manage your symptoms.
- Talk to your doctor before you stop taking your medication, even if you’re feeling better.
- Stay physically active.