HOUGHTON - With more than 20 million suffering from asthma in the United States alone, May's designation as asthma awareness month is an important one.
While many people know of its prevalence and existence, they may not be aware of how it works or how best to treat it.
"Asthma causes swelling on the inside of the airway and spasms of the muscles surrounding the airway," Aspirus Keweenaw Family Nurse Practitioner Shannon Handler said. "It makes for a smaller pipe so not as much air can go in and out."
Signs of asthma include difficulty breathing, chest tightness, wheezing and coughing, according to Handler. If one knows they have asthma, they can do quite a bit to prevent attacks from happening with some preventative measures.
"A person typically spends a large amount of time in their bedroom compared with other rooms in their house," Handler said. "Thus making sure the bedroom has the least amount of triggers can be the best prevention for asthma sufferers.
"Some common triggers for asthma attacks include dust mites, mold, animal dander from skin, fur, feathers, saliva, cockroaches, smoke, aerosol sprays, perfumes, gas or fireplace smoke, air pollution, odors from new linoleum flooring, carpeting, wall coverings, paint, cleaning chemicals, physical activity, viral illness and food additives," she continued.
Allergy season can also wreak havoc on asthma sufferers.
"Everyone gets a little bit worse with allergies," Handler said. "There are similar receptors in the sinuses that you have in the lung tissue, and swelling happens in both places."
One hundred million days per year are lost in productivity to asthma, with more than 11 million office visits and 4,000 deaths attributed to asthma, according to Handler. To figure out if one has the affliction, a spirometry test can be done to measure the extent of one's asthma.
"People take a big breath in and out, and it measures lung volume and the peak flow on how people can breathe," Handler said. "We have an idea what normal lung size can be, and if you have swelling and it's smaller, it's a measurable form of asthma."
The treatment for an asthma case varies from person to person depending on the extent of the disease, and there are stepwise guidelines set out by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Only one medication is needed for milder cases of asthma, while more may be necessary if the case is worse. However mild the case may be, an asthma sufferer should always have a rescue inhaler on them.
"That's the emergency measure, the one thing you have that's fast-acting that buys you some time," Handler said. "That opens up the muscles around the airway very quickly - it doesn't do anything for the swelling, but it releases the muscles.
"We usually just start with that one for a mild case, but if you're waking up in the night because you're having trouble breathing, that's a sign the asthma is getting worse," she added. "We may need to add something for prevention in that case."
If one has asthma, there are ways to feel an asthma attack coming on, according to Handler.
"If you're a person that works with your doctor and knows your own normal peak flow, you can check the flow daily," Handler said. "It will start to go down before you feel any symptoms. You also may feel tightness, a little more tired or have trouble breathing."
The dangerous side of asthma comes out either when a person does not keep track of it well, or goes through some sort of trauma.
"The most dangerous is the emotional irritants," Handler said. "If someone doesn't have good control of their asthma to start with an emotional issue like a car accident will trigger the asthma real bad. That's an emergency situation, and you need to get into the medical system at that point."
If a person believes they may have asthma, a visit to their health care provider would be the best first step.
"Awareness of severe asthma symptoms with early recognition and prompt emergency medical attention can be life-saving for a person experiencing an asthma attack," Handler said.