When I look back on my college years, like many people I’m overcome by bittersweet nostalgia. I think back on the naps I used to take in between classes, the fun nights out with friends, and the simple life I lived that wasn’t complicated by asthma.
I was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma just before celebrating my 21st birthday. I had a chest cold that wasn’t clearing up, and my symptoms were getting worse by the hour. By the time I made it to the urgent care clinic, I was wheezing and dangerously close to a severe asthma attack.
Fortunately, the clinic was able to perform chest X-rays and a spirometry test, and prescribe me a rescue inhaler and antibiotics to shake the bronchitis. I was shocked and frightened by what this meant for my future.
After my appointment, I remember running home from the doctor to research everything I possibly could. I didn’t know much about asthma at all. My brother had exercise-induced asthma as a kid, but it was always something I thought people grew out of eventually.
Doing my research
I spent hours looking up the long-term effects of treatment, how to properly use an inhaler, and whether or not there’s a link between asthma and lung cancer or lifespan. I’ll be honest: I was overwhelmed, and a little freaked out. I wasn’t connected to an asthma specialist or a pulmonologist after my first asthma attack, so it felt like I was going it alone in some ways. Navigating and managing a disease is much harder when you don’t have a lot of support.
Many years later, I was at a doctor’s appointment and the nurse asked me about my asthma action plan. I was embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about.
When and where was I supposed to get an asthma action plan? Is there an app for this? Why didn’t asthma come with a handbook? And if it did, why was I the last one to find out about it?
Modifying my lifestyle
Adult-onset asthma has impacted me more than I’d like to admit. If anything, it has taught me to enjoy the moments when I’m almost symptom-free. My triggers can be as fickle as the weather which, living in Chicago, can change by the hour.
I’ve had to modify many aspects of my lifestyle , including how much time I spend in nature.
I lived in Arizona during college, and hiking was one of my favorite activities. The dust was everywhere, though, and that was a problem for me.
Now, I have to be careful which days I choose to run in Chicago. It can too difficult to breathe outside with pollen, dust, and cold weather, even with a rescue inhaler.
It’s especially hard when my dog looks up with a sad gaze, wondering if we’ll make it out to the lake that day. It’s impossible for an animal to understand why we’re both trapped indoors.
Diet and stress
After a few years of feeling “off” when eating certain foods, I’ve taken a more holistic approach to my diet by reducing inflammatory foods and drinks. For me, one of these is the ever-problematic, but always delicious, red wine.
I suppose it’s both a blessing and a curse that I’m a fan of red wine and it triggers my asthma. While I do miss a nice glass of red, knowing that I can’t enjoy it safely definitely helps me cut down on alcohol. Potatoes, coffee, and eggplant also seem to bother me. I’ve eliminated them from my diet as well. Not everyone with asthma will have to restrict foods from their diet; these are just the things I’ve found work (or don’t work) for me after a lot of trial-and-error.
I’ve worked hard to reduce my stress levels and am wary of taking on too many projects at once. At one point, I was working a stressful job about 60 hours a week while doing my master’s degree at the same time.
There’s something to be said about overscheduling and overexerting yourself that makes you appreciate the quieter moments in life. During that time period, my health across the board was reaching the breaking point.
I remember having asthma attacks at my desk and getting pneumonia after a simple cold. Now, I’ve learned to follow my instincts when it comes to my body and to take things slowly when necessary.
The emotional side of asthma
The emotional aspect of disease management caused a lot of stress and anxiety in my early years with asthma. Fear, worry, and reproach were constant companions.
Was I going to have an asthma attack today? Did I have my rescue inhaler? Why did I have to have that glass of red wine that I knew would bother me?
Asthma continues to remind me that it’s always going to be there, and that’s probably the toughest lesson I’ve had to learn. We’re odd partners in this life, not yet fully understanding or appreciating one another.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever perfect the right treatment regimen and lifestyle approach to make all my symptoms subside.
But until then, I’ll do my best to enjoy the ride.
For more information on how to manage asthma, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
RESP-US-NP-00091 DECEMBER 2018