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When You Have Asthma

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Aug. 14, 2000 -- She's 36 and happily married, with one child and another on the way. She's got an upbeat approach to life. Even after six years of marriage, her relationship with her husband is as high-voltage as when they were dating, says Samantha (not her real name).

There's a problem, though. Like 12 million adult Americans, she's asthmatic. When her energy level rises, sexually speaking, Samantha's lungs sometimes fail and her passion plummets. She can end up literally hanging over the side of the bed hacking up phlegm -- not very romantic.

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"It's a bummer," Samantha says, and you know she's understating a chronic medical condition that has caused her countless hours of grief.

Physicians who treat patients with asthma -- an inflammatory condition of the airways -- tend to focus on the disease itself, adjusting and changing medications to reduce or eliminate the wheezing and breathlessness that can occur. Until recently, a physician would not be likely to ask a patient like Samantha about her sex life.

But the results of a new study suggest that physicians would be wise to begin asking asthmatic patients about their sexual functioning. The study found that two-thirds of the 353 people with asthma surveyed said their sexual activity was affected by the disease. One in five said the disease has forced them into abstinence.

Talking about the patient's sex life during an exam to evaluate the asthma could be life-saving. "Serious limitations in sexual functioning indicate that the asthma is not well-controlled," says Ilan Meyer, PhD, an assistant professor at Columbia University's Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, who led the study.

Meyer and a team of co-researchers at the university's Harlem Lung Center drew information from subjects whose symptoms were severe enough to send them to the emergency room. Each participant was asked to complete a quality-of-life questionnaire three weeks after visiting the ER.

Taken together, the answers paint a dramatic picture. Of the 80% who continued to have sex, 58% said asthma limited what they could do in bed. Meyer's team also found that people impaired sexually by their asthma tended to be depressed and to have little sense of control over their health, but it is unclear whether depression limited the sexual activity or the limited activity wrought by asthma led to depression.

Meyer's preliminary findings were reported in May at the 96th International Conference of the American Thoracic Society in Toronto.

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