7 myths about asthma

They’re words we hope we never have to hear or say: “I can’t breathe.”

For the estimated 2.5 million Canadians and 235 million people worldwide who suffer from asthma, an attack can be a terrifying experience. Despite how common the condition is and how serious it can be, many people still harbour misconceptions that can put their health and the health of their loved ones at risk.

In recognition of World Asthma Day and Asthma Awareness Month, we debunk some common myths and misconceptions about this chronic condition.

Myth #1: Asthma is “all in your head”

Asthma sometimes gets a bad rap in the media — like the nerdy kid reaching for his puffer at the slightest sign of stress. However, asthma isn’t a psychological condition: it’s a serious lung disease. People who have asthma have sensitive airways which can become inflamed — that is, swollen and filled with mucus — and the muscles surrounding the airways can tighten and spasm. With such effects, experts say it’s impossible to fake an asthma attack just to get attention.

That’s not to say emotion isn’t a factor. Like exercise, yelling, crying and stressful situations can change the rate at which we breathe — which in turn can trigger asthma symptoms. Long-term stress can also cause the release of certain chemicals in the body that contribute to chronic inflammation.

However, asthma symptoms can have little to do with emotion. Some of the most common asthma triggers include viruses, smoke, pollen, pets, dust mites, indoor and outdoor air pollution, cold air and mould.

Myth #2: Asthma is a childhood disease

Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children, but it isn’t just the under-20 set who are affected. It’s called a chronic disease with good reason: there’s no cure for asthma, and people don’t outgrow it. Asthma symptoms can disappear during puberty, but re-emerge well into adulthood. Why? Like the rest of the body, our lungs change as we age — and their decreasing capacity can make symptoms more noticeable.

Even people who didn’t have asthma as children can develop the disease when they’re older. Experts aren’t sure what causes adult-onset asthma, but some factors could put people at greater risk. These factors can include a family history of asthma, allergies (especially to cats), exposure to asthma triggers (like mould or smoke) and certain diseases or infections — even the flu. Some women experience symptoms for the first time when they’re pregnant or going through menopause, and hormone replacement therapy is also suspected to increase risk. (See WebMD’s Adult-Onset Asthma page for more information.)


Myth #3: If you aren’t wheezing, it isn’t asthma

Wheezing — that characteristic “whistling” or high-pitched sound air makes moving through inflamed airways — is a hallmark of asthma, but it isn’t the only symptom. Sufferers might also experience a tightness or pressure in the chest or shortness of breath when at rest or exercising. Children might not be able to keep up with their peers in sports and might feel “winded” faster than others.

However, adults may experience symptoms differently. That nagging dry cough you experience at night or the cold that settles in your chest and won’t go away can also be warning signs of the condition — as can coughing in response to strong odours or cold air. Why? Some asthma triggers cause the muscles to “twitch” or spasm (hence the coughing) even if they don’t cause inflammation.

Asthma shares symptoms with other lung diseases, so it’s important to discuss any symptoms you’re experiencing with your doctor. Medications used to treat other diseases — like heart disease and arthritis — can also be asthma triggers, so it will take some expert help to juggle multiple conditions.

Myth #4: People with asthma should avoid exercise

Try telling that to the dozens of professional athletes who don’t let their asthma get in the way of their goals. Experts say if you’re experiencing asthma symptoms when you exercise, you should be doing more to control the condition. With proper treatment and lifestyle choices — like avoiding known triggers — doctors say people with asthma are able to lead normal lives.

There is one exception to the activity rule: sufferers need to use caution when exercising around known triggers. That may mean heading indoors on “smog days” or avoiding cold, dry air, for example. Unfortunately, scuba diving is also a no-no because of safety concerns — and some places have an outright ban on people with asthma participating.

Myth #5: You only need medications when you’re having an attack

Effectively managing asthma isn’t just about taking “relievers” when flare-ups or attacks occur. Many people need regular medication to help prevent attacks and to manage symptoms which affect their day-to-day lives. Patients often need to take “controllers” or “preventers” on daily basis to combat chronic inflammation. One common mistake sufferers make is stop taking these preventive medications when they feel better.

If you have asthma, your doctor will work with you to create an asthma action plan — including how to monitor your symptoms and adjust your medication accordingly. Asthma medications aren’t addictive, say experts — that’s another myth.

Of course, medications are only part of the plan. Any treatment plan should also help you identify triggers and find strategies for avoiding them.


Myth #6: Moving will cure your asthma symptoms

Before you pack up your house, be aware that moving to a different climate may not help as much as you think. Experts do admit some symptoms can improve — like if you’re leaving cold air or pollution behind

Unfortunately, you can’t escape your body’s vulnerability to allergies and this strategy is prone to backfiring. Experts warn that many people who move end up developing new allergies — and new asthma triggers — once their body adapts to their new environment. You might be swapping one trigger for another — like an increase in air pollution in your warmer destination.

A trial run doesn’t always tell the tale either. Sometimes when people feel better on vacation, there could be another culprit they’re leaving behind, like the family pet or their workplace.

Myth #7: Asthma isn’t serious

Asthma may not get as much attention as cancer or heart disease, but being able to breathe is vital for life. According to statistics from the Asthma Society of Canada, the disease kills about 20 children and 500 adults each year. These numbers might not seem big compared to other diseases, but they’re still far too high for a disease that can be successively managed. People diagnosed with a mild form of asthma can still be at risk because the severity of symptoms can wax and wane through their lifetimes.

Even when symptoms aren’t life threatening, they can still seriously impact quality of life. Asthma is one of the top reasons kids miss school and adults miss work, especially since it’s often under-diagnosed and under-treated. The disease is estimated to take a $600 million dollar toll on our economy every year.

Worldwide, 80 per cent of asthma deaths occur in low- to middle-income countries, reports the World Health Organization. Canada may have one of the highest rates of incidence of asthma in the world, but we’re lucky to live in a country where we have access to health care and medications.

There’s no doubt that asthma can be a frightening and dangerous disease, but it’s one we can fight with better education and awareness. It doesn’t have to seriously impact quality of life — or take a life. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that affect breathing, experts warn to get these issues checked out as soon as possible.

Here are some sources where you can learn more:
The Asthma Society of Canada
The Lung Association
World Asthma Day

Additional sources: Allergy and Asthma Network: Mother’s of Asthmatics, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Better Health Channel (Australia), The Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia, MedicineNet.com, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ dardespot

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