As winter weather rolls in, so do colds and flu. But for those with asthma, it can be an especially stressful time of year because even a simple cold virus can trigger a major asthma event.
"In asthma, the lungs are already irritable and more reactive. So any virus that impacts the lungs has a propensity for creating more problems, including bringing on an asthma event faster and easier than many people realize," says Jonathan Field, MD, director of the Allergy and Asthma Clinic at NYU Medical Center/Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. With asthma, there is inflammation of the air passages that results in a temporary narrowing of the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs. This results in asthma symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. If it is severe, asthma can result in decreased activity and inability to talk. Some people refer to asthma as "bronchial asthma."
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And that, experts tell WebMD, is more likely to happen during the fall and winter months. In one study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2005, researchers identified what they came to call the "September epidemic," an upswing in the number of children admitted to emergency rooms for the treatment of acute asthma symptoms in the fall months.
The study concluded that one reason behind the increase was the start of the school season -- and a greater exposure to cold and flu viruses.
While you or your child may not be able to avoid these exposures, there are ways to stay safe and healthy. Among the most important: Take control of your winter asthma symptoms before other problems occur.
This simple tenet is so important that in new guidelines set down by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in August 2007, doctors put special emphasis on the need to encourage better day-to-day symptom control.
"Asthma affects over 22 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, but there is one truth: Asthma control is achievable for nearly every patient ... As health care providers, we should accept nothing less," NHLBI Director Elizabeth G. Nabel, MD, said when the new guidelines were introduced.
A good way to gain control is to become more vigilant about taking your regular asthma medications.
"This is especially [important] in patients who have been noncompliant with their asthma regimens in the past," says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.