“There's a whole world out there. Asthma's tried shutting me in before, and I won't let it. Traveling is one of my loves, so I'm not prepared to let it go."
When Cróna Tansey went on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with her fiancé, she knew keeping her asthma under control would be a challenge. But with some preparation, a keen eye for any triggers, and more than a pinch of patience, she managed to have the vacation of her dreams.
“Traveling reminded me how dangerous mixing asthma and complacency can be," she says. “I learned to never take my health for granted, as it doesn't take much for control to slip.”
I recently reached the milestone age of thirty. To celebrate, my fiancé and I booked a trip to see the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway. My asthma had been well controlled and predictable for several months. I even recovered from the dreaded COVID-19 just weeks before without too many asthma flare-ups.
The way I'd bounced back from the virus gave me a massive confidence boost, and I needed it. The temperatures in Tromsø were forecast to hit a low of 15 degrees. I had no experience of this level of cold, and cold air is one of my biggest asthma triggers.
I thought long and hard about how I could best prepare to protect myself against the cold while still being able to relax and enjoy the vacation. We had only carry-on luggage as we had planned to move around a lot during the trip. We had booked many activities all over the north of Norway, and dragging luggage from place to place wasn't an option. Some of my asthma medication and equipment are bulky, and they took up a lot of the little space I had.
I was close to leaving some of it behind as I felt I'd done a great job controlling my asthma for so long. I thought it was unlikely to take a turn for the worse during our little treat.
But, in the end, I brought everything with me, and I'm so glad I did. I also packed some warm snoods (a scarf crossed with a hood!) and a filtered mask to shield my face from the brunt of the cold air.
Related: My Asthma Travel Checklist
So far, so good
Having sorted things as best I could, we set off on our vacation. It was so exciting to travel without worrying about all the restrictions of the pandemic, and I wanted to make the most of it.
As we landed in Norway, it hit me how chilly 15 degrees was. But, unlike Ireland (my home country), it wasn't windy. The air felt very fresh, and the cold was bearable. I was pleased with how well I managed in the cold, especially during the first few days.
Related: 7 Steps to Keep Asthma in Check for Winter
For a birthday treat, my fiancé arranged an excursion to the Lyngen Alps. We went snowmobiling and snowshoeing. That night we stayed in a Crystal Lavvo (a type of log cabin with a glass roof) and saw the Northern Lights. It was a magical experience and one I'll never forget!
I needed constant vigilance when managing my triggers
Still, I couldn’t help but be a bit worried about the wood stove in the cabin and how it would affect my chest. At times like these, I really see the difference between me as an asthmatic and my asthma-free fiancé. I resent spending so long worrying about potential triggers, but life isn't fair for anyone. I've got to be realistic about my health and keep myself safe.
I decided to wear my mask overnight. I hoped it would protect me from the cold air, smoke, and pungent smell of burning wood. I certainly didn't want my asthma to take away from the fantastic experience we were having. We saw the Northern Lights, and I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness.
My asthma symptoms began to catch up with me
When we returned to Tromsø the next day, I could feel the deterioration in my chest. I was pretty wheezy for the rest of the trip. We were on the last few days, so my symptoms didn't hugely impact any more of our planned activities.
But I was aware my asthma was on the brink of getting worse. I didn't want to spoil the last couple of days panicking, but I couldn't scrub away the nagging feeling in my chest.
It was frustrating because I had kept up with my asthma care routine. It looked like my sense of security had been false. I'd done everything right, and my asthma had deteriorated anyway.
Related: 5 Tips for Better Asthma Control
It was a constant battle to keep my symptoms under control and enjoy our adventure. I was also terrified that I'd ruin the vacation for my fiancé.
Thankfully, I hadn't left any of my medication behind, so I had what I needed to relieve my rebellious lungs. I learned to never take my health for granted, as it doesn't take much for control to slip.
Controlling asthma abroad is a very different experience
The flight home was difficult, and I struggled that day. I got plenty of stares and odd looks for my continuous coughing (COVID still isn't far from anyone's mind). I did everything to ease my symptoms while traveling, but it wasn't easy. I erupted into wheezing and hacking every time I talked, which played havoc on my chest. It was exhausting.
This experience brought me back to other times when my asthma escalated while abroad. A few years ago, I visited New York during the snowy season. The cold air brought on such a bad asthma episode I felt overly cautious and shaken for the rest of the trip.
When I got back to Ireland, it took a week before my asthma returned to its typically controlled level.
It was a massive disruption, and I was horrified by how much triggers could still affect me. After arriving home, I took special care to return to my usual self. I remained consistent with my asthma care plan, but I also spoke with my doctor, who gave some good advice. Along with prescribed medical treatment, I used an ointment on my chest and inhaled hot shower steam to ease my symptoms. When my breathing returned to normal and my chest relaxed again, I could have cried with relief.
Related: Why You Need to Be Kind to Yourself After an Asthma Flare-Up
So, is traveling with asthma worth it? Of course! But don't get complacent.
I've accepted asthma as part of my life, and lately, I've felt really positive. It has been well controlled, and I've followed my action plan, which has always worked well.
Traveling reminded me how dangerous complacency is when it comes to asthma. I don't have the same healthcare abroad as I would at home. If I had a mild to moderate attack abroad, I would have to rely on my coping mechanisms and anything I’d bought with me/local pharmacies. The thought is a bit scary!
Sometimes, it can be difficult not to clam up and hide away from anything that could host potential triggers. But I can't not live my life. I have to remain optimistic and carry on. If I was in dire straits abroad, I know my fiancé would get the medical attention I'd need.
There's a whole world out there. I'm fortunate enough to live in a time when exploring is possible and encouraged. Asthma's tried shutting me in before, and I won't let it. Traveling is one of my loves, so I'm not prepared to let it go.
Note: The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for managing asthma symptoms at home or abroad. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.
NPS-ALL-NP-00615 JUNE 2022