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Cold and flu season is also asthma season. If you are one of the 25 million Americans (1 out of every 13 people) who have asthma, you probably already know this! Here are a few tips to help control your symptoms.
- Get a flu shot annually.This is an absolute must. Some 80,000 Americans died during the 2017-18 flu season, and the vast majority were very young, were elderly or had underlying heart or lung disease. Remember: The flu shot cannot give you the flu.
- Know your medications.Most people with asthma use an inhaler called albuterol. This “rescue inhaler” is a bronchial dilator and is used when you are short of breath or wheezing. The medication works by relaxing the smooth muscle around the airways of the lungs. As the smooth muscle relaxes, the diameter of the airway increases, making it easier to breath. Other names for this medication are Proventil, Proair and Ventolin. This medication is specifically used on an as-needed basis.
Many patients with more significant disease also have an additional type of medication such as Advair or Symbicort, which is referred to as a “maintenance medication.” This type of medication is a combination of a long-acting bronchial dilator and an inhaled steroid. It can take up to two weeks for these medications to achieve maximum benefit. You cannot stop and start this medication; you need to take it every day to keep your lungs healthy. (Most of these medications are used twice a day; check your prescription.) This medication is not designed to be an as-needed medication.
If you have not had a recent worsening of your asthma, take the time to find your medications and make sure they have not expired and have medication in them. Just shaking the canister is not enough. The propellant can make it sound as if there is medication when there is not.
- Know your peak flow. Peak flow is a measure of how well your lungs are able to expel or blow out a deep breath of air. You can measure your peak flow at home or on the go with a small device called a peak flow meter. If you know your peak flow number when you are breathing your best, you can compare future measurements to that “baseline” number. A decrease in your flow can be an early but important indicator of an upcoming asthma attack. It can also tell you how well your medications are working and help you decide if you need emergency care. Your medical provider can write a prescription for a peak flow meter, or you can buy one on Amazon for approximately $13. Be sure to ask your provider about how to correctly use the meter.
To record a peak flow number, use the meter three times and record your best number. This number tells you the number of liters of air you can expel per second. If you have been exposed to an asthma trigger or feel symptoms coming on, measure your peak flow three times, choose the best number and compare it to your baseline. If the measurement is 15% below your baseline, you should use your albuterol inhaler. If your peak flow does not improve (a bigger number), then contact your healthcare provider or be seen in the Emergency Department.
Asthma is a significant lung disease, but with proper care it can be easily maintained. It is up to you as a patient to become familiar with your disease, the medications you are on and know the warning signs of exacerbation.