How to Distinguish and Manage Your Asthma Symptoms in the Age of Covid-19
I was severely asthmatic as a child and young adult. Hospital visits were frequent and scary. This is how I managed my illness.
Disclaimer: Let me begin responsibly. The following, to be clear, is not medical advice, nor are my words being presented as a “cure.” Always seek a medical professional when in the midst of an attack. That said, what I will share here is based on personal experience, and also the experiences of friends who have been through the nightmare of an asthmatic-related lung disease … and have learned how to manage their symptoms when no doctor was immediately available.
As with the rest of the world, asthmatics are particularly fearful today. Among the symptoms of Covid-19 are a dry cough, fever, body aches, lethargy, chest congestion and severe shortness of breath.
The last two are particularly alarming to asthmatics.
Though said to feel somehow “different” and in its grip more serious than an asthma attack curtailed by a puff or two of an inhaler, nonetheless the constricted breathing capacity caused by our new coronavirus has been a major discussion point on the part of survivors and asthmatics alike. From my reading of the experiences of the former, and watching related television interviews, more than a few of the less extreme cases have discussed similarities with asthma symptoms.
I cannot speak of personal experience regarding Covid-19, thankfully, but I am something of a first-hand expert on the latter.
So how can an asthmatic differentiate and control their symptoms in this era of uncertainty? Are you suffering asthmatic symptoms at present, or symptoms of Covid-19? Until you and I are tested, we won’t know for sure, and it is for that reason I was compelled to write this article.
What is Asthma?
According to MedicineNet, a working definition of asthma, and its treatment, is the following: A common lung disorder in which inflammation causes the bronchi to swell and narrow the airways, creating breathing difficulties that may range from mild to life-threatening. Symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, and chest tightness. The diagnosis of asthma is based on evidence of wheezing and is confirmed with breathing tests. Many allergens and irritants can precipitate attacks of asthma. Avoidance of precipitating factors can be helpful. Treatment may include lifestyle changes, activity reduction, allergy shots, and medications to prevent or reverse the bronchospasm.
My personal symptoms included, for many years, all of the above.
It was tough being a child in Brooklyn because, as much as I loved the place of my birth, most days I could barely breathe.
Until I was seven years of age, I was allergic to everything, or so it seemed. Chocolate, pollen, dust, penicillin, nuts …
Times were tough. I visited the doctor twice weekly for a series of allergy shots. Chronic wheezing, caused by constriction of my breathing tubes, led to sometimes daily hospital visits. Shortness of breath and near-passing out was common.
A tight iron band around my chest does not begin to explain the level of discomfort.
Tedral and adrenaline shots were used to combat the attacks, in tandem causing me to develop high blood pressure.
I was a child, as a reminder.
My parents quite literally saved my life. My dad received a job transfer, upon his request, to Denver, Colorado. The thought was my illness would be better-managed at a higher altitude. I was wheeled in a baby carriage — at seven years old — to our awaiting ride that would take me and the family to the airport.
The carriage was used as a preventive to avoid my collapsing during our walk to the car.
For the next four years, I was fine. No attacks whatsoever. When my grandfather had a heart attack back in New York, my parents spoke to our family doctor, who gave them — and me — the okay to return to New York and be physically closer to our remaining family.
We moved back. I was fine for many years thereafter … until a decade later, following a breakup, when the old shortness of breath returned with a vengeance, as did the hospital visits.
Psychological factors surely had a play. Once recovered, and I moved to California to pay my dues as an aspiring writer and producer for film and television, guess what became troublesome yet again?
The asthma attacks were, if anything, worse than ever during this period, as were bouts of chronic bronchitis.
The steroid Prednisone was prescribed for the ongoing chest congestion, which in turn raised my blood pressure to levels I had not experienced in years. Regular emergency room visits followed for breathing treatments, and I carried an inhaler everywhere.
And then I decided to get myself in shape.
I was tired of feeling crippled, to be frank.
I went to the gym. I lifted weights. I swam, testing myself daily to swim underwater from one end of the Olympic-sized pool to the other. I even ran and completed the Los Angeles Marathon.
I built up my lung capacity, but there were indeed periods where I felt an exercise-induced attack coming on. Over the years, I had at several points visited a doctor for allergy-testing to see if my old allergies had returned. They had not. Sometimes, however, when I was home alone and dwelling on stressful events, I felt the familiar tight band around my chest and difficulty breathing. Frequently, the wheezing returned.
But I learned not to panic. It had been years since I carried an inhaler, which I for many years used far more than prescribed.
Somewhere along the lines I learned to manage the attacks before they happened.
Precipitating Factors and Self-Containment Techniques:
I did my research, and paid careful attention to the following:
- Diet Management. Speak to a doctor or nutritionist, or read a respected page online, to improve your diet. I am a firm believer that good, healthy foods can replace many (not all) medications. I will say that under a doctor’s supervision, I was able to discontinue both my high blood pressure medication and cholesterol drugs once I turned to a plant-based diet. I do not recommend veganism for everyone, but do speak to your doctor about dietary options appropriate to your level of asthmatic discomfort. Cutting out lactose is a widely-agreed upon start.
- Stress and Psychological Factors. When I look back on my life post-Colorado, my attacks during those later years were typically stress-induced. I read books, I listened to music — meditation made me fall asleep, in all honesty — and I discovered I could keep the attacks at bay simply by relaxing.
- Working in a Polluted Environment. Self-explanatory, common sense, and never a good idea for anyone with a lung-related illness.
- Exercise. Exercise-induced asthma is common, but that same exercise routine in time can drastically improve your lung capacity. As with any exercise program, if you are asthmatic please consult a physician before undertaking a new regimen. Yoga is frequently recommended for asthmatics due to its physical and breathing benefits.
- Poor Breathing Habits. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am considered higher-risk due to my past lung issues, and my age (56). This is what I’ve done over the years, in terms of conscious breathing, to ward off attacks during moments of increasing breathing discomfort with which I still sometimes have to deal: a) Practice shallow breathing. Shallow breathing should enable you to relax. This works especially well if you feel short of breath, in part due to actively staving off a potential adrenaline-inducing panic state. b) Drink coffee, tea or another caffeinated beverage, but in moderation. Though for an asthmatic limiting caffeine intake may be the better part of valor, due to being a stimulant when you should try relaxing in the midst of an attack, in moderation caffeine can help open the breathing tubes, and therefore decrease wheezing. I would note this is encouraged only if you do not have access to an inhaler, or your usual medication. c) Pass the moment. If you feel short of breath and yet you are not wheezing or coughing, sit in a chair — or the ground if no chair is available — and embrace the feeling. I know full well how that sounds, especially today considering our pandemic. If you cannot catch your breath and no other symptoms are present, until a paramedic arrives or you otherwise get to a doctor, treat this symptom as a stress attack. Those moments of feeling unable to breathe are horrifying; how can you possibly embrace them? With this exercise, you are treating your shortness of breath as an anxious response. If you sit and do not fight the feeling, after a time the feeling will be diffused. Think about this: You are panicking, believing you cannot breathe, and yet minutes if not hours later, you are still fighting for breath. About the worst that will happen is you will eventually pass out … and you will still be breathing. The most likely case is you will not pass out and will instead ultimately calm down. Dr. Claire Weekes wrote several books on this subject, my favorite being “Hope and Help for Your Nerves.” Check out a profile of the pioneering Dr. Weekes at the link following the article. d) Breathe from the diaphragm. A tell-tale sign of many asthmatics is their chest rises as they struggle to catch a breath. Learn to breathe from the diaphragm, which has a myriad of benefits:
Diaphragmatic Breathing and Its Benefits
Your diaphragm, like so many muscles in your body, can be strengthened or used more effectively. Diaphragmatic…
Feeling as though you are unable to catch a breath is one of the scariest feelings an asthmatic, or anyone, will experience. By making some adjustments to your diet, managing your stress, getting some exercise, and practicing controlled and conscious breathing techniques, you can frequently manage your symptoms.
If you have undiagnosed Covid-19, this will likely not be the case. A dry cough and runny nose are said to be early signs. If you are an asthmatic and currently suffering chronic symptoms, as always contact a professional.
The issue is, though, considering today’s pandemic and overflow of afflicted patients, you may not receive help as quickly as needed. In these events, try to practice some of the above.
Similarly, if you are asthmatic but presently asymptomatic, especially during this period when we are all locked in do not ignore the role healthy choices and practices can play.
I hope by openly sharing my own tough experiences with asthma, and how I’ve made it through the struggles, I have been of some help and service to you.
Our greatest challenge right now is to differentiate our typical asthma symptoms from those of the coronavirus. What we may think is an acute attack may be in reality something more. We are not doctors, and we will likely not know until diagnosed. So be safe, practice safe preventive techniques, and be smart about your health.
Common sense, nothing more.
Thank you for reading.
About Dr. Claire Weekes, and “Hope and Help For Your Nerves” …
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