Most people take for granted the simple act of breathing -- unless you're among the unfortunate souls who have asthma. When an asthma attack hits, you realize that what comes natural and easy to most, is painfully difficult for you. An attack often is described as taking a breath on a very cold day.

Asthma, one of the most common, chronic conditions in the United States, affects more than 15 million people and is increasingly prevalent in all age groups throughout the world. In fact, it is the No. 1 cause of absenteeism among school children. Even though there is no cure for asthma, it can be controlled.

"It is vital for people with asthma to get educated on the condition," says Sherry Amadon, a registered respiratory therapist and pulmonary function technologist who serves as lead therapist for the East Jefferson General Hospital (EJGH) Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Asthma Management Center. "With education, they can stop suffering and start living an active lifestyle."

Asthma is a condition in which the air passages connecting the nose, mouth and lungs narrow and constrict airflow. Due to this inflammation, the smaller air passage creates a strain on the body and leads to common symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest. Left untreated, severe cases can be fatal. More than 5,000 deaths per year are attributed to asthma, and the number is climbing each year.

"In treating people with asthma, we believe in the four components outlined by the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program," says Amadon, who also is a certified asthma educator. "We focus on assessment and monitoring, control of contributing factors, pharmacological therapies and education. We work with you and your physician to develop an individual, self-management plan especially for you."

Diagnosing asthma is sometimes difficult, because its symptoms mirror other respiratory illnesses. People also sometimes view it as just a recurring cough. After proper evaluations, review of medical and family history and chest X-rays, physicians can begin to eliminate other respiratory illnesses as possibilities. To get a more definitive diagnosis, a spirometry test, in which a patient blows into a tube to determine the volume of air produced by the lungs, may be conducted.

Most asthma attacks are brought on by a trigger, or a set of conditions, that causes the respiratory system to react and constrict. Everyone has different triggers that initiate an asthma attack, and they are not easily detectible in many cases. Allergens such as mold, dust mites, secondhand smoke and pet dander are major triggers. Sometimes stress, emotional swings, temperature changes and exercise can set off an attack.

One of the first steps to living with asthma is to identify any triggers that may cause an attack and try to eliminate them from your surroundings -- particularly in your home, where you spend much of your time. Other recommendations may include removing carpet, using an air purifier, or if you decide to have a pet, researching which pets are least likely to adversely affect asthma sufferers. If a trigger is found outside your home in places you cannot control, it is best to avoid those triggers that you can and be prepared to handle an attack that might be brought on by these factors.

Some asthma can be treated or controlled through medication, a determination best made by your physician. Steroids and maintenance medications can be prescribed in certain cases as a way to control the disease on a daily basis. For short-term use, an inhaler works to abort an attack, but professionals caution that using an inhaler too often is a sign that your approach to dealing with asthma may need to be adjusted.

"In regards to the inhaler, I tell people it's the rule of two," says Amadon. "If you use your inhaler more than twice a week, if you have nighttime symptoms more than twice a month, or if you need to refill your inhaler more than twice a year, you may not have control of your asthma. We should sit down and go over your history to see if you should do something different to gain control."

Amadon also recommends that anyone with asthma seek out a support group. Visiting with others reminds you that you are not alone, and it is useful to learn what they are doing to control their asthma. It is a learning experience for everyone, she says. EJGH offers the Better Breathers Support Group, which is free and open to the public. For more information, call EJGH Health Finder at 456-5000.

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