Are Asthma Attacks Rising With the Temperature This Summer?
By Dr. Harlan Weinberg, Medical Director of Pulmonary Medicine, Northern Westchester Hospital
If it seems like asthma is on the rise, it is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that doctors diagnosed 4.3 million more Americans with the condition over the last ten years. Unfortunately, no one really knows why asthma is increasing. In spring and summer, the increase in temperature, pollen, and humidity can make asthma attacks more likely. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to protect yourself or loved ones.
Asthma is characterized by inflammation in the airways. This inflammation can lead to shortness of breath, a tight feeling in the chest, and wheezing. The condition can limit your ability to exercise or partake in activities of daily living. The inflammation can be caused by a number of triggers, such as allergies, dust mites, pollen, infections, certain foods, and environmental factors like pollution or mold. The full list is substantial, which means it may take a while to find a patient’s trigger. Blood tests for allergies can help narrow down the candidates. Patients may also want to keep a journal to jot down the places and times when breathing gets worse.
Once a doctor finds the triggers, the next step is finding ways to limit the patient’s exposure. Then the patient will try out various medications or inhalers to figure out which best suits the patient’s needs and lifestyle. One way to track the effectiveness of treatment is with a peak flow meter—a device that measures the volume of a forced breath. This allows patients to track how they’re doing and head off an attack before it gets serious. The goal is to keep people at 80 percent or higher of their peak air flow. The meter gives them an objective measure to go along with their subjective sense of how they’re breathing.
At the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Northern Westchester Hospital, respiratory and exercise professionals work with asthmatics to establish an action plan that will keep their airflow at optimal levels and help prevent attacks. One of the important things to recognize is that a lot of asthmatics, who have limitations, consider that to be normal. That’s not how it has to be. With medications and other strategies, we can get them past those limitations, so they can be active and live without worrying about their condition. This gives them more reserve if they should have an attack.
I sometimes joke that I want to put myself out of business. If you’re having attacks often, returning to the emergency room, constantly using steroids, or frequently using rescue inhalers that’s not a real solution. Our goal is to have people caring for themselves in a way that they don’t need medical attention. They’re controlling their condition on their own.