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When breathing doesn’t come easy: Living with and managing asthma

Worldwide, asthma is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases, affecting 25 million people in the United States alone. The disease varies in severity depending on the patient, ranging from mild, occasional flare-ups to frequent asthma attacks that can greatly affect a patient’s quality of life. In some cases, asthma can be life-threatening.

“People with severe asthma often describe asthma attacks to feeling as if they’re drowning,” said Arnold Chung, M.D., a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon at MountainView Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgery Associates. With spring upon us, environmental allergens and asthmatic triggers will be in full force, making managing asthma especially difficult for many.

What is asthma?

Asthma causes airways to the lungs to become inflamed and narrow, constricting the amount of air the person is able to take in.

When a person has an asthma attack, the airway continues to narrow and swell, and the body produces extra mucus within the airway, which further reduces the amount of oxygen getting to and from the lungs. This causes coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness and/or pain.

What does an asthma attack feel like?

Chung compared an asthma attack to the feeling of drowning. The Ad Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created an ad campaign likening it to feeling “like a fish with no water.” Others describe the feeling as similar to being suffocated or smothered. Regardless of the wording, severe asthma attacks can cause extreme panic, which can further exacerbate symptoms.

How is it treated?

Because asthma is a chronic condition and a patient’s symptoms can vary drastically, there a several ways asthma can be treated and managed, depending on the patient.

  • Quick-relief medications: These help calm the symptoms of an asthma attack once it has begun by relaxing the muscles of the airway. For patients with well-managed asthma, such treatments should not be needed daily, or even often, although quick-relief medications always are important to have on hand, in case an attack occurs. Also referred to as rescue treatments, these most often are albuterol inhalers. For patients whose asthma is triggered by allergens, allergy medication also can reduce and help manage symptoms.
  • Long-term control methods: Treatment aims to reduce airway inflammation day-to-day, which can prevent symptoms, reduce the patient’s chances of having an asthma attack and/or lessen the severity of the attack. This treatment most often is a daily steroid inhaler or pill.

What triggers attacks?

For people with asthma, a variety of factors can trigger symptoms and increase the risk of an asthma attack. While triggers vary from one person to another, common ones include:

  • Pollen/allergy season
  • Perfume or cologne
  • Mold
  • Exercise, exertion or stress on the lungs
  • Pets
  • Colds, flus and upper respiratory infections
  • Cold, dry air
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Dust
  • Sulfites (a common preservative in food and drinks)
  • Outdoor pollutants (smog, smoke, dust, etc.)

New treatments methods

Some people with severe cases of asthma may not be able to properly control symptoms with medication and inhalers alone. For these people, there is a new outpatient treatment method called bronchial thermoplasty to help open airways.

This treatment is performed over the course of three sessions, during which a catheter is inserted into the lungs via the nose or mouth. Once inside the airway, the tip of the catheter is expanded to touch the inner walls of the airway. The catheter then delivers a therapeutic dose of radiofrequency energy. This warms and relaxes the tissue, which reduces the amount of excessive smooth muscle in the airway.

Bronchial thermoplasty is becoming a popular method for the treatment of asthma because of its high success rate and relatively painless procedure.

“People with severe asthma can miss work, school, fun activities and even avoid travel because of the effects of the disease. Bronchial thermoplasty can change that for many patients,” Chung said.

MountainView Hospital is the only location in Nevada offering this procedure.

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