Woman runner suffering asthma attack on trail.

Getting through the summertime asthma blues

Summertime gives us the chance to get outdoors and participate in our favorite activities. But if you have asthma, you might be reluctant to participate. Bhagat Aulakh, MD, a physician with OSF Medical Group – Lung & Pulmonology, has some tips to help asthma sufferers live boldly throughout the year.

What is asthma?

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Asthma is a chronic lung disease, marked by reversibility of airflow that causes bronchospasm, making it difficult to breathe. Irritants cause inflammation of the airways, and the body’s immune system produces an inflammatory reaction in response to what it considers a threat. The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and swollen, leaving less room for air to move through.

Asthma can result from environmental and genetic factors. While we can’t control the genetic factors, there are ways to reduce your exposure to irritants and mitigate attacks.

An asthma attack can be scary and include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing

“Summer conditions can trigger asthma. People are outside more. There is more air pollution, humidity and pollen. All of which can trigger asthma,” Dr. Aulakh said. “They can also worsen allergies, such as grass allergies. Other things that can also set off asthma include campfires, cigarette smoke and fireworks.”

The increase in temperatures and outdoor activities can induce bronchoconstriction or the narrowing of the airways.

If you are going to be outdoors, Dr. Aulakh recommends you:

  • Be prepared and take your inhalers.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • If you are swimming and the chlorine in the pool water is causing flare-ups, consider swimming outside or in a properly ventilated indoor pool.
  • Know before you go – check pollen and humidity levels.
  • Use short-acting inhalers before playing or exercising.
  • Use the buddy system – someone you trust to help monitor your condition.
  • Warm up before strenuous activity.
  • Wear a mask.

Controlling triggers

Staying away from allergens and triggers are key to managing asthma.

Dr. Aulakh recommends:

  • Avoiding dust mites.
  • Avoiding smoking or being around those that do.
  • Consider using an air filtration system in your home.
  • Keeping mold and dander down to a minimum.
  • Maintaining a good humidity level in your home.
  • Minimizing cleaning sprays in your home. If they’re necessary, make sure your home is well ventilated.
  • Staying inside when the pollen count is high.
  • Using an air conditioner and avoid opening windows.
  • Washing your hands.
  • Wearing a mask if you do yard work.

“Wearing a HEPA filter mask may also mitigate some of the pollen and allergens,” Dr. Aulakh said. “Consider showering and doing nasal saline rinse after you return from the outdoors.”

Asthma reaction

If you have an attack, Dr. Aulakh recommends inhaled steroids and bronchodilators. You might also consider nasal saline rinse or nasal steroids. Antihistamines can work as well.

“I am a big fan of the nasal saline rinse,” Dr. Aulakh said. “The first point of entry for allergens is through the nose. Keeping your nasal passages and sinuses cleared of allergens can reduce the inflammation.”

Your doctor may decide to refer you to an asthma specialist or allergy and immunology specialist if inhaler therapies do not help. They may consider a new class of medication called biologics, medications produced from living organisms or contain components of living organisms for your asthma.

Have a plan

Asthma should be tailored to your specific needs. Discuss an asthma action plan with your primary care provider.

With the use of a peak flow meter, an inexpensive, hand-held device used to measure how air flows from your lungs, you can measure your ability to push air out of your lungs.

There are three levels based on the peak flow measurements.

  • Green zone – peak flows are greater than 80%, and you don’t have symptoms.
  • Yellow zone – peak flows are between 50-80%, and you have to use your inhalers more often.   Your doctor may prescribe steroid pills.
  • Red zone – peak flows are less than 50%.

“If you are in the red zone, your inhalers probably are not helping,” Dr. Aulakh said. “Steroids by mouth may be helpful, but there may be a low threshold to go the Emergency Department.”

Your primary care provider may consult with your specialist if your asthma symptoms are worsening.

“Check the pollen count and air quality before you head out. Don’t forget your inhalers either,” Dr. Aulakh said. “By planning and being prepared, those with asthma can still enjoy many fun activities this summer.”

Last Updated: November 27, 2020

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About Author: David Pruitt

David Pruitt is a writer for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare. He has a bachelor’s of journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a reporter before joining OSF HealthCare in 2014.

An avid golfer and fisherman, David was born and raised Alton, Illinois, which is where he currently resides with his son, James.

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Categories: Lung & Respiratory Health