BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha 

Quite a few patients of mine don’t want to acknowledge – not only to others but even to themselves – that they have asthma. The problem stems partly from the fact that when we were young, children suffering from asthma were looked upon as weaklings who were unable to participate in the normal activities of healthy children – for example, active sports. 

There were no asthma inhalers in those days so the only way such kids could prevent wheez­ing and frightening breath­less­ness was to avoid strenuous activities. Today, we have effective treatments in the form of various inhalers to not only relieve but also prevent the symptoms of asthma. So a person with asthma in the 21st century is in a very different situation compared to an asthmatic of say 50 years ago.

However, attitudes and prejudices die hard and many of us still retain the stigma associated with asthma even though it’s a very manageable condition.

To manage asthma effectively, one should first understand what it is. In basic terms, it’s a condition where the bronchi (i.e. the tubes or airways that carry the air we breathe from the nose to the inner parts of the lungs) are very sensitive to certain influences.

When subject to these influences, which can be anything from allergens like pollen and animal fur to cold weather, and even strong emo­tions – the bronchi constrict. This constriction or narrowing of the airways restricts the amount of air that can enter the lungs and consequently, we find it difficult to breathe. And if the airway restriction is very severe (which is a rare occurrence), one can even die from an asthma attack.

As anyone would admit, you can’t solve a problem without first understanding that there’s a problem and acknowledging it.

Some people consider asthma to be an episodic condition. They think that asthma is like a fever – you’re struck by an episode now and then, you treat it when this happens and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it… until your next episode of fever (or asthma) strikes.

This is far from the truth.

When people suffer an asthma attack, they must realise that they have sensitive airways that will react in the same way (sometimes even more severely) when they’re subjected to the same influence that causes this episode.

In some people, the sensitivity of the airways is so mild that their episodes of asthma are few and far between. All they need do is to have their medication (nowadays it’s a convenient inhaler containing a medicine like salbutamol) with them.

When they’re aware of the onset of symptoms, all they need do is use the inhaler (also called a ‘puffer’) and take two puffs, which relieve the spasm of the airways.

Others who suffer asthma more frequently can prevent or minimise the frequency of such episodes by using a different type of inhaler – known as a ‘preventer,’ it contains medi­cations that diminish the reactivity of the airways so that when they come in contact with an adverse influence, they don’t usually react.

It’s important that asthmatics understand they have a condi­tion that can’t be cured – but with knowledge and the right attitude, it can be managed very effectively.