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woman at social event in yellow dress drinking champagne with asthma symptoms under control

You Can Still Be a Social Butterfly with Asthma

Reading time | 9 mins
Can asthma affect your social life?
In a recent study by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), 64% of responses said that asthma had affected family relationships, with another 55% agreeing it had a negative impact in marriages or romantic partnerships.
Asthma, as Cróna Tansey points out in her article, affects far more than your health. Today, Cróna talks about the impact asthma has on her well-being in social situations, and how she prepares herself for an active social life with the condition.
As she says: “Asthma tries to shut me in. My friends, family, and determination help me take back control.” 

Asthma is always with me, wherever I go. It can flare up at work, at home, when I exercise – and, as much as I sometimes want to – I can't leave it at home when I want a night out. 

In an Asthma UK survey, 70% of people agreed that asthma got in the way of their social lives. 

That's been me. I was embarrassed by my asthma and having to take an inhaler along with my makeup and purse. It was too risky to go out without my medication, as I knew that would be the time I'd have an attack. I didn't want to talk about it with my friends, instead I would dart off alone if I felt wheezy or short of breath. 

Sometimes, the idea of going out was as stressful as the actual event. Asthma and emotions can be strongly linked, and all the pressure piled on by keeping it a secret was making my asthma worse. I wanted to enjoy myself. I wanted to make my own choices and not feel trapped into the ones asthma was making for me. So, friend by friend, colleague by colleague, I started opening up. 

Related: How My Emotions Affect My Asthma Symptoms

It turned out to be one of the best things I could do. 

Talking to my friends about asthma transformed my social life

Having a supportive group of people around me has made coping with asthma during social events and special occasions so much easier. Nowadays it doesn’t feel as if asthma is hell-bent on ruining my night - and I'm well prepared if it raises its ugly head. 

My friends and family are aware of my asthma and the impact it can have on my life. They've seen some of the asthma attacks and episodes over the years, and they helped me cope with them. It's been a learning curve for all of us, especially when my asthma wasn't well controlled and somewhat unpredictable. 

Related: 8 Tips for Talking About Asthma with Others

When it comes to my asthma, I've had a good couple of months. Due to the pandemic, I've spent lots of time at home, keeping well away from my usual triggers. 

In Ireland, we're slowly beginning to rebuild and return to our social lives. We can sit freely in restaurants and pubs - even travel. After twelve months or more of clean living, I was interested in seeing how my asthma adapted to the new, new normal. My biggest asthma triggers have always been cigarette smoke, air pollution, and strong fumes from perfume and aftershave. 

Some of my friends smoke, and I'm determined to not let asthma wedge itself between us and our friendship. Of course, no amount of curiosity would make me go into a smoking courtyard! When the cigarettes come out, I hang back in the freshest air I can find, with my inhaler at the ready. My friends, knowing my flare-up triggers, will do their best to direct their smoke, or they'll move to another seat. Honestly, it may sound like a small thing, but it makes all the difference to my nights out. 

So, a little bit of honesty from me and kindness from my friends goes a long way. It certainly beats running off alone to cope. Please, if you haven't talked about asthma with your social circle, the best time will always be now. They'll understand more than you think! 

Related: Creating An Asthma Trigger Free Zone On The Go - Is It Possible? 

Asthma triggers can pop up on a night out

Just how much cigarette smoke triggers me hit hard at a Billy Joel concert a few years ago. The audience couldn't smoke in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, so lots of people started lighting up as we left.

I ended up walking behind someone who was smoking, and the stream was blowing directly in my face. I began coughing uncontrollably. The lady turned around, and it was clear that she thought I was overreacting. I rushed past her, settling myself a few steps ahead (and out of harm's way), fumbling for my medication. As the lady caught up (thankfully, now cigarette free), she was incredibly apologetic.

In another article I wrote about asthma awareness, I talked about asthma being a hidden condition, much of the time. I remember when my asthma attacks happened mainly at night; I'd rush to see a doctor at 1 a.m., but I went to work in the morning as if nothing happened. I didn't "look" sick, but I was constantly exhausted and isolated. Before I reached out to family and friends, I was worried I'd look like a hypochondriac.

Related: Combatting Asthma Stereotypes

Sometimes, asthma makes me feel guilty in social situations

Sometimes, it felt like my inhaler was the only "proof" I had of living with a chronic condition. 1 out of 5 people in the UK live with a disability, and 80% of those people have an illness considered invisible to the rest of the world. When understanding and sympathy can depend on how vulnerable I look to others - intentionally, by explaining, or unintentionally, when someone witnesses an attack or sees me using my medication - accepting my asthma and how others may see it could be hard to handle.

I was brought crashing back to old thought patterns outside that Billy Joel concert. I realised how much triggers can take me by surprise in any social situation - even ones I think I've prepared for. But a more treacherous part of me - a part of me I thought I was healing - felt like I'd caused a scene. I felt bad for the lady who'd just wanted to enjoy a concert and a night out. The attack had been absolutely beyond my control, but I still felt that hard nugget of guilt in my heart.

Then, on one holiday in Australia, I had an attack in a restaurant. I could see people craning to look at the commotion, so I made a hasty exit out the front.

It’s hard to fight back the tears when you’re genuinely frightened during an attack, especially in public. All I want in that moment – all anyone with asthma wants – is some privacy to deal with it quietly and recover. All the eyes watching me can easily send me into a spin, which makes my attack worse.

Related: 3 Tips for Travelling with Severe Asthma

Whenever a new social occasion calls, I think of Australia and motivate myself to be as prepared as possible. There’s no fail-safe to prevent an asthma attack – trust me, they come when they want, prepared or not – but there are some things I can do to help as and when they happen.

So, if you want to stop asthma from ruling your social life, here are my top 4 tips for weathering an unpredictable storm:

4 Tips for Being a Social Butterfly with Asthma

1. Talk to your loved ones in advance of social situations

If you haven’t already, talk to your friends and family about asthma. Sharing my triggers didn’t make me look “vulnerable” or, worse, “weak”. It did the opposite! Now I have a team around me wherever I go, and they keep an eye out for any potential triggers I may miss.

I’ve also told my loved ones how to deal with someone else’s asthma attack. When I’m in the throes of one it can be terrifying – but it’s also scary for the people watching who care about you. The most important thing we all do is stay calm, even if our fight, flight or freeze buttons are pushed.

Related: How to Move on From a Very Serious Asthma Attack

You don’t have to deal with asthma alone. Managing an asthma attack when trying to explain what’s happening is also no easy feat. Prepare the people you’re going with in advance, and trust them to understand and rally behind you. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

2. Have an asthma action plan

You may think you can handle your asthma alone, but everyone can benefit from an asthma action plan. Many action plans are on a piece of paper or card that you take everywhere with you (you’ll get used to it eventually!). If you should find yourself in an unwelcome situation while out alone or with friends, this piece of card can tell someone:

  • What medicines you take every day to help manage your asthma symptoms
  • What to do if the asthma is getting worse
  • The emergency action to take if someone’s having an attack and when to call 999

You can talk about having an action plan with your GP or a nurse, and they’ll help make one personal to you. If you have a bad attack that ends in hospital or A&E, the card will be invaluable to those trying to treat you. It’ll also help your usual doctor keep track of your condition!

My doctor has given me an inhaler for emergencies, as part of my plan, and I make sure others know where to find it before we go out. The last thing we need is panicked hunting as I’m having an attack!

3. Take resources, like masks, with you  

While the horrors of COVID-19 won’t fade for a long time, the pandemic normalised masks. Masks and scarves can be incredibly useful barriers against smoke, pollution, and perfume fumes, so I carry some in a bag or in a pocket. Masks also help with cold air, which is another trigger for my asthma.

Related: 3 Ways to Manage Asthma Symptoms Outdoors

4. If you need to leave, take someone with you

When asthma strikes, it’s tempting to hide away and deal with the symptoms yourself.

But nowI think about all the times I rushed off alone, and I cringe. What if my asthma attack had gotten worse? No one knew where I was, and there wasn’t anyone around to dial 999 and talk to the emergency services.

If you need to escape, ask or signal to someone that you need their help or company. Not everyone withdraws from someone having an attack! That way, I know someone is ready to spring into action if I need them to.

At worst, I’ll just have a friend calm me through a short attack! A tiny bit embarrassing, maybe, but I’d rather be safe than sorry any day of the week.

Asthma and social life: The takeaway

With COVID-19 restrictions in Ireland finally easing, I’m so excited about reuniting with friends and family.

My sister was finally able to get married this month after a long time of uncertainty, date changes and altered plans. She handled everything like a trooper, but I’m proud of her for keeping her head together even when the stressors racked up.

It was such a special day for the whole family – extra-special, in fact, because of how turbulent the year had been. The intimate setting meant that I thankfully felt totally at ease with my asthma for the day. I was surrounded by my family, watching my sister say her vows, and I felt secure enough to enjoy the day to the full.

But I didn’t forget my action plan, medication, or to prepare guests in advance! Getting laissez-faire is a dangerous mistake, even when my asthma is well-controlled. So, remember my four-point plan and don’t get lax!

I’m going to reconnect with more of my family and friends this summer, safe in the knowledge I have their understanding and support should I need it.

Yes, mixing asthma and social life can be tough – but it’s not impossible. Asthma will do its hardest to shut me in behind closed doors. I use my action plan, friends, family, and sheer determination to help me break free. It works!

NPS-IE-NP-00325 October 2021