Living well

How to breathe easier with asthma

By Anna Sharratt,

Comments (1)

Just diagnosed with asthma? Don’t wait: Take action now to get your breathing under control, with new treatment options or lifestyle changes.

How to breathe easier with asthmaDebbie Valentini’s childhood was challenging, to say the least. Her infancy was largely spent in hospital, where doctors attempted to keep her asthma in check while trying to determine what triggered her wheezing, difficulty breathing and full-fledged asthma attacks. Her condition, diagnosed at the age of just one month, also led to stress for her family.

“My mother had to go to great lengths to make sure my environment was dust-free and the air was at the right humidity and not too hot,” says Valentini, who’s now 50. “I had to take a lot of oral steroids. I could never keep up to my peers in long-distance running or swimming; now I know that it was my asthma.”

Almost 50 years later, asthma treatment has changed dramatically, as Valentini can attest. Like her, once they’ve been diagnosed and their triggers identified, most asthmatics can lead very normal lives and undertake activities they love. The key is managing symptoms and keeping on top of any changes to prevent flare-ups.

Asthma: Numbers are on the rise

Asthma is a condition in which the airways are hypersensitive and become inflamed when exposed to viruses, allergens such as smoke, dust or pollens, or chemical odours. The inflammation leads to:

  • Swollen airways
  • Increased production of mucous
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased oxygen intake

Severe attacks can result in death. The Asthma Society of Canada says 250 Canadians die of asthma each year.

And many Canadians suffer from the disease. Asthma accounts for approximately 80% of chronic respiratory disease in Canada, according to Carole Madeley, director, Respiratory Health Programs at the Ontario Lung Association. “While the number of new individuals who have developed asthma seems to be relatively stable compared to the asthma epidemic in the 80s and 90s, there is an overall increase in the number of people living with asthma, particularly children,” she says.

Another issue is that most asthmatics don’t have their condition under control, says Meridene Haynes, a certified asthma educator at the Asthma Society of Canada. This results in a higher rate of breakthrough symptoms (occurring despite medication) such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

New treatments

Fortunately, new treatments have emerged that can effectively control symptoms. These include:

  • Corticosteroids, usually via puffers, which reduce inflammation
  • Bronchodilators such as long-acting beta agonists, which can open airways and improve breathing
  • Leukotriene receptor antagonists, which inhibit the compounds the body produces that cause inflammation

Lifestyle modifications are also an option, says Kate Whimster, a Toronto-based naturopath. She suggests anti-inflammatory treatment through herbs and supplements, breathing exercises, and identifying food sensitivities, either using an elimination diet or via food-sensitivity testing. “When someone feels better, they have more energy and focus to put to changing the underlying causes,” she says.

Identifying those triggers, whether they be food-related, environmental or chemical, can help asthmatics avoid them and reduce their symptoms, says Haynes. “All persons with asthma should be aware of their triggers,” she says.

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Michelle Smyth (@michelle_smyth) on

Growing up, I was plagued by allergies, and hay fever in particular. I also found it hard to run in gym class because I would run out of breath so quickly. It never occurred to my parents that I might have asthma, so I was never tested. Even after my son was diagnosed with asthma, it never occurred to me that he might have inherited it.

A few years ago, I had a cough that would not go away after a cold. The doctor told me I was experiencing asthma-like symptoms and gave me inhalers to use on an as-needed basis. That helped, but this year, when they weren’t cutting it anymore, I was finally tested for asthma. My results were off the charts! Seems like I had lived with asthma so long, I had become accustomed to not being able to breathe regularly. So now I take my low dose inhaler every day, and man, what a difference. I still can’t run…but at least I can climb a long flight of stairs without feeling like I’m going to pass out!

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