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Surviving University with Asthma

Reading time | 6 mins

I had my fair share of “asthma moments” throughout my university career. There were times when I had to defer exams due to asthma exacerbations.

I was also a kinesiology major – meaning that I was basically majoring in physical education… with moderate-to-severe persistent asthma. To put it lightly, it was a bit hard to keep up at times.

Add the general stress that both university and asthma can cause to those experiences, and it’s sufficient to say that navigating college with asthma is a unique journey.

Juggling doctors’ appointments and prescriptions with papers and lectures (and a job!) were all part of my university life. Here are some things to consider when you’re tackling surviving college with asthma.

Stress

Let’s just dive into this one right off, because it’s probably one of the first issues you’re going to encounter. College can be incredibly stressful for most students. Stress can make your asthma symptoms worse or possibly even cause an attack.

I certainly remember my asthma worsening before exams — and my breathing returning to normal pretty rapidly after the completion of exam season. So, if you experience this, it’s probably not just in your head!

Finding ways to help alleviate stress will be an important part of your asthma care plan during your college years — and beyond.

Access to medications during exams

A tip I received early in my studies from my then-pre-med friend was to always keep my inhaler on my desk during exams. I don’t think I ever actually needed mine (so if it was a psychological trick that worked in itself, so be it!).

Different campuses have different rules about what you can bring into an exam. However, medication should always be allowed. Ask your instructors about the school policy. Be sure to let them know you have a medical condition.

Talk with your professors and school officials to work out a plan to make sure you have access to your medication during exams.

Documentation and accommodations for asthma: Do you need them?

I only needed a medical note for my asthma once. Even then, I didn’t actually need it. In my second year of university, I went to a conference in Stanford and had a pretty significant asthma episode while I was there.

I planned to study for my psych exam in the airport during my return flight. Instead of studying at the airport, I had to focus on getting my symptoms under control while I was there for an extended stay because of a layover.

When I finally got home, I had to immediately make an appointment to see my doctor — and ended up missing that psych exam altogether.

I emailed my prof from the airport and stopped by his office to reschedule my exam for the next week once I was back at school. I tried to hand him my doctor’s note, but he said he didn’t need it. He understood the situation. Still, better safe than sorry.

Another step (which I learned of years later, after I was also diagnosed with ADHD) is to consider registering with your school’s disability services center. While you may not need ongoing accommodations for asthma, it helps to have access to them if you need them.

At my university, they were able to do such things as:

  • help with speaking to instructors about needed accommodations
  • post signs asking students to refrain from wearing or using scented products in specific classrooms
  • provide more allergy-friendly areas to eat if needed

This will require documentation from your doctor, as well, but can — in some cases — offer you a bit more flexibility in your studies. Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, it may be helpful for disability services staff to be in your corner… just in case.

Living conditions: Dorm life

Like most, if not the majority of Canadians, I lived at home with my parents and attended classes locally. As such, I’ve only observed dorm life secondhanded. So, I asked a couple of friends with asthma about their experiences.

My friend Kat spent five years living in dorms. She said she didn’t really discuss her asthma with her roommate but said that she told her resident advisor (RA) about it at the beginning of the year.

Kat, who also has a latex allergy in addition to asthma, told me that her RA “was a really good advocate on the latex end of things, which is really the only trigger in the hallways.”

In terms of living with a lot of people and the increased risk of communicable diseases and infections, Kat discussed her impending living situation with her doctors.

They discussed vaccines, including some that were previously “optional” but became more crucial when living in close proximity to other people, she said.

In terms of avoiding triggers, Kat also purchased the cleaning products for her dorm room, so she had more control over choosing the products that would work best for her.

With regard to dust allergies, Kat recommended getting a dust mite cover for the mattress and asking a family member, friend, or roommate to help cover the bed. This may not seem like a two-person job. But having someone assist you can help avoid additional exposure to triggers.

John also lived in a dorm. “I actually thought dorm life exposed me to fewer asthma triggers than at home,” he said. “So, my asthma did pretty well when I was in college.”

He noted that the biggest trigger for him at that point in his life was cold air, which made long walks to class a bit more difficult in winter.

“Sometimes when I got really busy, I’d forget to take my medicine. And of course, when this happened, those long walks in the snow were even worse,” he told me.  

John, who’s now a respiratory therapist, thinks dorm living should not pose a problem for most people with asthma, “This is especially true,” he said, “if you have good control of your asthma.”

John’s final advice? “Just make a note to not let the stress of college life cause you to forget to take your medicine.”

Campus Health

If you have a campus health center, it can be useful to immediately find out what types of services they offer, especially related to asthma. My campus health center here in Winnipeg was staffed by a nurse practitioner.

Other schools may offer more robust services — some that could prevent students with asthma from making trips to the urgent care center or the emergency room.

Call ahead or stop by at the start of your term. It could save you a lot of running around if you do need care.

Even the best walk-in or campus health clinic can’t compete with the relationship you have with your family doctor. Having continuous access to care both when you’re well and when you’re sick can be super helpful.

If you can get access to a primary care physician who can handle the ups and downs of asthma alongside you, this may be your best bet. However, knowing where to find “backup” solutions — such as campus health or walk-in clinics — is important too, since asthma is unpredictable.

Persistence and patience are key

As with your academic studies, persistence and patience are key when managing asthma, too. You may not know what’ll happen, but having a plan when you need it is important.

This goes for asthma, studying… and anything else in your life you can plan a bit ahead for!

A trick a professor gave us in my second year of university is one I used every term: Create a “master syllabus” on a sheet of paper so you can see all due dates and exams at a glance.

Asthma hack: In a different color, add in dates for prescription refills and doctors’ appointments, too, so nothing catches you off guard. And, you don’t find yourself having to run to the pharmacy the night before that paper is due.

Once you’ve hit your stride, both school and asthma can work into your groove — even if you have to put a bit of work in to get to that point.

For more information on how to manage asthma, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

Sources

Asthma triggers and management. (n.d.) https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/asthma-library/asthma-triggers-and-management

RESP-US-NP-00107 JUNE 2019