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In Her Own Words: Living With Asthma

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Denise is a 66-year-old retired schoolteacher from Massachusetts. She was diagnosed with asthma 15 years ago. Here, she explains how she has learned to live with asthma.

What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?

After a bout with bronchitis, I started having symptoms of chest tightness and difficulty breathing. Sometimes the symptoms were so severe that I had to go to the emergency room.

What was the diagnosis experience like?

The symptoms became much worse when I went to my summer home, because there was much more mold and other allergens in the climate there. So I went to a doctor there (not my permanent doctor back home), who diagnosed it and prescribed a treatment. When I went home, my regular doctor managed my treatment.

What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?

I don't really recall what my reaction was, other than, "Well, okay, it's just another thing to manage," because I also have diabetes. So I just looked at it as something I had to deal with, but I don't remember being terribly upset or frightened, although the episodes when I had to go to the emergency room were a bit frightening.

How do you manage asthma?

I've managed my asthma over the years by taking prescribed medications and by avoiding allergens and other triggers, such as smoke, that can cause my asthma to flare up. Until recently, I was taking a medication called Pulmocort every day, which kept my asthma under very good control. In fact, my symptoms have recently abated completely. I don't know if it's because I'm now retired and under less stress, but I've stopped taking the Pulmocort (with my doctor's permission). But if I get a cold or cough or something, I'll have to go back on it, so that those symptoms don't turn into a full-fledged asthma attack.

Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to your illness?

I have to completely avoid smoke, because it is a big trigger for me. One of my trips to the emergency room before I was diagnosed came when I was at a social function where there was a lot of smoke. Avoiding smoke is much easier to do today than it was years ago, because there are so many smoke-free buildings and businesses now. I also have to avoid exposure to allergens, such as mold and ragweed, as much as I can.

Did you seek any type of emotional support?

No, I never really thought about it. As I said, I was used to managing a chronic condition because of my diabetes.

Does your condition have any impact on your family?

Well, I think the episodes where I had to go to the emergency room were worrisome for my husband, but, beyond that, there hasn't really been much impact. My children were grown and out of the house by the time I started having symptoms.

What advice would you give to anyone living with this disease?

I would recommend that people take their medications as prescribed by their doctors and stay away from smoke, allergens, and other irritants as much as possible. I also recommend getting some exercise, eating well, and getting enough rest, as well as trying to keep stress levels down. I also think people should be cautious when trying any alternative remedies–I once tried taking some kind of weed that was supposed to be helpful for asthma, but it actually made my symptoms worse. I think I was allergic to it.

Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.