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Monday Medical: Managing asthma

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Tightness of chest, difficulty breathing, a persistent cough: The symptoms of asthma can be scary and, in some cases, debilitating.

Dr. Jon Hamilton, a primary care provider at UCHealth Primary Care Clinic in Craig, outlines what you need to know about asthma below.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition in which the lungs restrict in response to allergens and other irritants, making it difficult to breathe.



“It can be very uncomfortable and even life-threatening,” Hamilton said. “Some adults and kids have significant impacts to their lives and ability to function in everyday life. They may feel like they just can’t get air in and can’t do the activities they want, and just feel terrible.”

What are the symptoms?

Wheezing, difficulty breathing and tightness of chest are classic symptoms of asthma. But some people experience less serious symptoms, such as a mild cough.

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“It can be difficult to diagnose at times,” Hamilton said. “Kids may just cough a little after exercise or when they come in from playing, or they may cough some at night.”

Who does it affect?

Anyone at any age can be impacted by asthma, but most people with the condition begin to experience symptoms when they are young. Sometimes, the condition isn’t diagnosed until a patient is older.

“Anyone presenting to the Emergency Department for a cough or wheezing really does need to have good follow up with their primary care provider,” Hamilton said. “Hospital visitations are a big indicator of the severity of asthma.”

There is likely a genetic component of asthma, and some conditions can contribute to the disease — for instance, an aspirin sensitivity can be connected to severe cases of some types of asthma.

How is it diagnosed?

For very young children, asthma may be diagnosed based on symptoms. Older children and adults can do a breathing test with their health care provider to help diagnose the condition and determine how it responds to medication.

How is it treated?

Most everyone with asthma will be prescribed a “rescue inhaler” with albuterol, which quickly dilates the lungs. If that isn’t enough, an inhaled steroid may be added to help block inflammation locally.

In more serious cases, a long-acting inhaler may be used every day to keep the lungs dilated and reduce the need for the rescue inhaler.

Patient education is key to any treatment.

“We can prescribe the medications, but if someone’s not using them correctly, it’s not helping anyone,” Hamilton said. “Every asthmatic using a rescue inhaler should have one in the vicinity — it doesn’t help to have one at home if you’re not there 50% of the time.”

Patients often use a simple breathing meter to determine what action to take.

“It helps reduce hospitalizations and ED visits and puts the patient and their family in charge of the care,” Hamilton said.

And if treatment doesn’t help, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.

“Contact your provider or go to the ED, because that can, in certain situations, be life threatening,” Hamilton said.

Staying the long course

Regular visits with your medical provider are helpful in treating asthma.

“We recommend reassessing it every one to two years to make sure lung function is protected and not worsening,” Hamilton said. “Some patients may require more check-ins if they have more severe asthma.”

It’s also important to avoid triggers, such as allergens and other lung irritants.

“Avoid smoking cigarettes and cannabis, and vaping — anything that puts an irritant in the lung,” Hamilton said. “Allergists play a big role in the success of treating asthma because they control lots of triggers.”

Smoke from wildfires can also worsen asthma, so stay indoors when the air quality is bad.

“Asthma is an inflammatory condition, and every time you have inflammation, that adds up over time,” Hamilton said. “If you have poorly treated asthma for 20 or 30 years, you may have poor lung function in your 40s and 50s. Early action does help.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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