Okay, so before I begin this fairly personal post about my diagnosis, issues and management of asthma, I want to acknowledge that this isn’t the most severe of chronic illnesses one could have but it IS one that many people suffer from at a very young age and many who have to live with it for a very long time, and without proper management it can stop you from doing normal everyday things in life, and it really shouldn’t.
What’s asthma and what are the symptoms?
Asthma is a respiratory condition that affects the lungs and airways. It’s caused by some kind of hypersensitivity (usually it’s allergic) that triggers the airways to swell and squeeze tight making it much harder to breathe, the precise cause is unknown. Symptoms include; shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing (usually persistent), tightness in the chest, hyperventilating, excess mucus.
An asthma attack is a sudden or severe flare-up of the airways and is considered a medical emergency if it cannot be controlled quickly by reliever medication.
It was the summer of 2013-2014, I was 18 at that time. I had a bad cold during my uni exams and as I was coming out of it I had a chronic cough, every night I wouldn’t get much sleep at all (nor did my family) as I coughed and coughed and coughed every night, I was rushing to the bathroom, I drank water, I slept upright, I tried everything to get comfortable. I went to the doctor’s office, I was told I had a post-nasal drip from the cold I had previously and needed a nasal spray. I tried that and it didn’t work. My parents thought it would be a good idea to try cutting out some foods in case I had a food allergy, there were a lot of arguments around this time as they thought I didn’t care about my health and I was frustrated because they didn’t believe that I was trying my absolute best. I felt bad for them, it was like having a newborn again who couldn’t sleep through the night, except I was 18 years old.
Another night of coughing, but, this time, Dad got up walked into my room, told me to get dressed we were going to the hospital. It was probably 3 am, and we were on our way to the local ER. It was yet another typical doctor’s appointment, they had no real clue again saying it was a post-nasal drip, but they’d do a lung X-ray to check anyway. All clear, and off we went home. At least, this sleepless night seemed a bit more productive…
About a month later, we went up to Byron Bay for a family holiday. My parents were still convinced that it was because of my poor dietary habits that I was still coughing. For an entire week, they saw everything I ate (which was the same as what I had been eating before hand), and the coughing at night was getting worse that I began dry heaving. I went to a doctor up there, I told this doctor everything again and he straight up told me I had asthma and needed medication immediately to keep it under control and that it is very unlikely that it will go away as it’s adult onset asthma. At the same time, I had broken out in SEVERE eczema all over my body (I had only previously suffered from mild dermatitis on my hands in winter). All the skin on the palms of my hands peeled off and the soles of my feet (very weird, I know). Eczema and asthma are very closely linked, once the asthma was under control my eczema disappeared and I haven’t had a problem with my skin since.
Life went on…
Glad to have my health issues sorted before I started uni again, I was taking my medication pretty regularly but I believed if I didn’t really experience any symptoms I wouldn’t be taking my medication as regularly. I was participating in a university dance production and during rehearsals I’d have to sit out at times to recover, and despite being medicated it just didn’t feel enough. I pushed through the rehearsals and the show, and I was beginning to learn my triggers. Now, I know that my triggers are exercise (even going up the train station steps some days will increase my heart rate and breathing), alcohol (especially ANYTHING that is bubbly), smoke (cigarette or BBQ) and fast temperature changes (heated train carriage to cold winter night).
My first asthma attack
I was on the way home from uni one afternoon in October 2014, after a nice long lab, I was being accompanied on my walk to the station by someone who had irritated me all semester, I was very stressed out at the time about uni work piling up. I still find walking long distances and talking to someone difficult, my air management skills aren’t quite good enough to keep up apparently. All the way home, I was struggling a fair bit to breathe, I was starting to get a bit scared because I was beginning to think it was an asthma attack and since I hadn’t even been diagnosed for a year I wasn’t really sure whether I could define what I was experiencing as one. I had to take my backpack off to walk home as it felt it was constricting my chest, I walked slower than an elderly woman until I got home.
I got home, fell into my bed and focused on breathing slow and deep, I couldn’t get it under wraps, I started crying, the feeling of not being able to breathe is pretty crappy, and it’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself… the more you cry the less air I could take in, and then I got scared I wasn’t breathing. My parents sent me straight to the ER, it was most definitely an asthma attack, lots of tests and a long night spent waiting for tests to come back and for my breathing to improve enough for them to release me. The doctor asked if I had reliever medication, I was only ever prescribed a preventer, they gave me a nebuliser and spacer and referred me to their respiratory clinic which had asthma specialists that I need to visit every 6 months to ensure I had a proper asthma plan and monitor my progress.
Went home later that night, thinking I would never have to go back to the ER for my asthma, boy was I wrong. Two days later, my chest is extremely heavy and I’m coughing so hard and then I see blood in the tissues. Not a lot, but any blood coming out of my throat is kind of a need to worry. Back to the ER we went, turns out the Ventolin nebuliser they had given me dried out my throat so much that coughing hard tore a bit of the lining which caused the bleeding and wasn’t much to worry about (that being said, I still don’t use that drug regularly because I’m concerned it’ll happen again).
After all the drama
Specialist appointments have been rocky, my lung function is much below average (last time it was ~50%) for my age, gender, height, fitness and smoking status (it intrigues me that they ask this every time, even though I struggle without any help from a cigarette). I got a much clearer line of what I can do when my asthma is good ,when it isn’t good and when I need to call 000. They ran some allergy tests, I have no common allergies and my chemistry indicates I DON’T have allergic asthma, despite suffering from hayfever. The cause of asthma is unknown and that’s something I have accepted, I’m far more concerned that it doesn’t stop me from living my life.
How I deal with it now
Now, I’m trying to work on my fitness, going for long swift walks and introducing a bit of a run here and there to help reduce the threshold of exercise that triggers my asthma symptoms. I have flare-ups now and then particularly in winter and transition seasons but I now have the right medications to deal with it so I can just live a normal life.