By Korin Miller
Living with asthma means that seemingly harmless substances can spark a cascade of events that leaves you gasping for air. (Asthma pathophysiology involves a pretty wild and terrible chain reaction.) Although medication can help subdue asthma symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain or tightness, and wheezing, there are other steps you can take to lower the odds you’ll find yourself fighting to breathe. Here are seven life rules experts say everyone with asthma should follow.
- Get your flu vaccine every year.
If you haven’t, you need to go get your flu vaccine (ideally before Halloween this year). It’s not something to shove down your to-do list until…surprise! It’s suddenly summertime and you never got your shot. This is especially true if you have asthma, even if it’s mild or well-controlled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Having asthma doesn’t raise your risk of coming down with the flu, but it makes it more likely that you’ll have complications like asthma attacks and pneumonia.
If you have asthma, your airways are prone to inflammation and producing excess mucus. The muscles surrounding your airways can tighten up, too. All of this prompts asthma symptoms. As the CDC explains, the flu can cause even more airway inflammation, which might make your asthma way worse or lead to complications. It can also make your airways more sensitive to the triggers that bring about symptoms in the first place. It’s no wonder that asthma is one of the most common conditions in adults who are hospitalized due to the flu, according to the CDC. Getting vaccinated can help you avoid that.
When you go in to get vaccinated, be sure to mention your asthma. While you could technically get the nasal spray vaccine, the CDC recommends people with asthma get the shot instead because the spray can cause wheezing.
- Get vaccinated against pneumonia, too.
As you can tell, vaccines are kind of our thing. The CDC recommends that people with asthma stay up to date with their pneumococcal vaccination to protect against diseases like pneumonia, which, again, is especially likely in people with asthma.
There are two pneumococcal vaccines: the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which helps ward off 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria that commonly cause serious infections, and the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, which targets 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria that can cause intense infectious illnesses. Ask your doctor which makes more sense for you, or discuss it with the pharmacist when you go get your flu shot—you can get both at the same time.
- Know and avoid your triggers.
Everyone with asthma has triggers. Common ones include pollen, dust mites, mold, pet dander, respiratory infections like the common cold, cold air, exercise, smoke, and stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Being exposed to a trigger can set off those respiratory system issues that make it hard to breathe properly.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s worth spelling out here: “Avoiding known triggers of asthma reduces the frequency and severity of asthma symptoms,” Jonathan Parsons, M.D., director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. If you’re not sure what your triggers are, talk to your doctor.
- Regularly measure and record your peak airflow.
If you have asthma, you should use a device called a peak flow meter to measure how well your lungs expel air. This can help your doctor make decisions about your treatment and adjust your medications accordingly, the American Lung Association (ALA) says. Also, since it can be surprisingly tough to pick up on little changes in your ability to breathe, a peak flow meter can tip you off to problems before your symptoms become severe, Dr. Parsons says.
The price of peak flow meters varies depending on if you get a mechanical or electronic one, and that may also change whether or not your insurance covers it. Some are available for around $10, though.
If your readings start to vary from day to day or you notice they’re getting worse, it’s time to call your doctor about tweaking your treatment plan, Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, tells SELF.
- Keep tabs on how often you’re using your quick-relief inhaler.
A quick-relief inhaler is full of medication to open up your airways when your asthma is acting up. Clearly, an inhaler is a great part of your asthma toolkit, but if you’re relying on it a lot, it’s a sign that your asthma isn’t under control, the Mayo Clinic says.
If you have any questions about your asthma treatment or you feel like yours just isn’t as well-controlled as it should be, check in with your doctor. “Asthma, for all of its trouble, is largely a [manageable] disease,” Dr. Cascari says.
- Don’t stop taking your medication just because you feel good.
In addition to a quick-relief inhaler, if you have asthma, you’re likely using long-term medicines meant to keep inflammation in your airways to a minimum. Don’t decide to just wean yourself off those or go cold turkey. “Many times, the reason people stop taking medicine is that they feel well,” Dr. Parsons says. “[But] the reason they feel well is the medicine is actually working.”
If your respiratory system seems fine and dandy and you’re interested in scaling back your medication, talk to your doctor. They should be able to weigh in on the situation and advise you on next steps.
- Have an asthma action plan, and actually follow it.
An asthma action plan is a written document that outlines which medicines you should use based on the severity of your asthma symptoms (and at what doses). It also contains general information about your asthma triggers, your best reading from a peak flow meter, and phone numbers for your emergency contact and doctor. (This is why you should carry it around and give a copy to family members and friends who are around you regularly.)
If you and your doctor haven’t made one of these yet, you should do it soon. “The goal of an asthma action plan is to reduce or prevent symptoms and emergency department visits,” Dr. Parsons says.
Acting quickly when you start to have an asthma attack makes it less likely that it will become severe enough to require medical treatment, the Mayo Clinic says. Knowing exactly how to handle your symptoms makes it a lot easier to tame your condition and go on with your day.