An asthma attack can occur when an irritant – usually a common substance like smoke, cold or dry air, pollen, mold, or dust mites – meets a set of temperamental lungs. Hormonal fluctuations, stress, and anger can also trigger an attack. Sometimes there’s no apparent cause. Your difficulty in breathing occurs because the bronchi, the tubes that allow oxygen into your lungs, go into spasms. Accompanying them may be coughing and tightness in the chest. The spasms trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals that cause inflammation and the production of airway-clogging mucus.
For severe asthma attacks – the kind of tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath that can be really frightening – most people do just what the doctor recommends. Often, that means quick action with an inhaler containing a drug such as albuterol. If that’s what you use, and it works, don’t give it up. And always have your doctor’s telephone number near at hand in case of severe attacks. But for non-emergencies, you’ll want to figure out ways to help yourself breathe easy.
Breathe easier right now
• When an asthma attack comes on, stay calm. Panic can make your symptoms worse. Help yourself along with this visualization trick: Close your eyes. As you inhale, see your lungs expand and fill with white light, and feel your breathing become easier. Repeat this exercise twice more, then open your eyes.
• In a pinch, have a strong cup of coffee or two 355-mL cans of caffeinated cola. Caffeine is chemically related to theophylline, a standard medication for asthma. It helps open airways.
Natural remedies for asthma
• Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have been using the herb ginkgo to treat asthma for centuries. If you want to try it, take 60 to 250 milligrams of standardized ginkgo extract once a day. One recent study suggests that this herb interferes with a protein in the blood that contributes to airway spasms.
• Magnesium may make you feel better. Much research suggests that magnesium relaxes the smooth muscles of the upper respiratory tract. The recommended dose is 600 milligrams a day.
Help asthma by fighting inflammation
• Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel, work much like a class of asthma drugs called leukotriene inhibitors. These drugs stop the actions of body compounds that cause inflammation in the airways. Take six 1,000-milligram capsules a day in divided doses.
• Evening primrose oil is rich in an essential fatty acid called GLA, which is converted by the body into anti-inflammatory substances. Take two 500-milligram capsules three times a day. Take them with meals to avoid stomach upset.
• Bioflavonoids, the compounds that give fruits and vegetables their Technicolor hues, have powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties. One of the best-known bioflavonoids, quercetin, inhibits the release of histamine. Take 500 milligrams of quercetin three times a day, 20 minutes before meals.
• Turmeric, that yellow cooking spice used to flavor Indian curry dishes, is a first-rate anti-inflammatory. The compounds it contains inhibit the release of COX-2 prostaglandins, hormone-like substances involved in inflammation. Mix one teaspoon of turmeric powder in a cup of warm milk and drink this up to three times a day. Turmeric capsules and tinctures are also available.
Keep a record
• In a date book, make a note of everything you eat for a month. Also record your asthma symptoms. While food allergies are rarely associated with asthma, occasionally there is a connection. Check your diary against your symptoms to see if anything you’re eating increases the frequency or severity of your attacks.
• If you take asthma medication, get a peak-flow meter, available at drugstores. This gadget measures the speed at which air leaves your lungs – an indication of how well you’re breathing. By reading your ‘peak flow’ at certain times, you can tell how well a medication or remedy is working. You can also use it during an attack to determine its severity and decide whether you need emergency care.
Prevent asthma attacks by avoiding triggers
• Don’t smoke, and stay away from people who do. Cigarette smoke irritates the airways.
• Don’t huddle around a fireplace or wood-burning stove.
• In cold weather, wrap a scarf around your nose and mouth to help warm frigid air before you inhale it.
• Be alert for unusual asthma triggers, such as strong-scented foods or the intensely perfumed sample strips bound into magazines, and do what you can to avoid them.
• Try eating smaller, more frequent meals, and don’t eat before you go to bed. The upward migration of stomach acids that cause heartburn can also trigger asthma attacks.
• About 5 percent of people with asthma are allergic to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen. For these people, taking the drugs can trigger an attack. If you are one of them, use an aspirin-free pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead.
When home remedies aren’t enough
Should you call your doctor? Yes, if you develop asthma symptoms for the first time. If you’re already being treated for asthma, you probably have medication that you take at the onset of an episode. Even so, call your doctor if you notice you’re using your medication more often, or if your symptoms worsen even after you take it. Get someone to take you to the emergency room if you can’t speak without gasping for breath, develop a bluish cast to your face or lips, find it extremely difficult to breathe, or become confused or exhausted.
Deep breathing to reduce anxiety
This simple deep-breathing trick can help reduce the severity and frequency of your asthma attacks. When an attack starts, you naturally become more anxious as it gets harder to breathe. This produces a ‘clenching’ response that can further restrict your airways. But if you’ve practiced this breathing technique ahead of time, you can use it to help yourself breathe more freely.
• Lie on your back on a carpet or mat and place a book on your stomach.
• Inhale gently and deeply, but not by expanding your chest. Instead, expand your abdomen. Keep an eye on the book. If it rises up, you’re breathing the right way.
• Just when you think you’ve reached full capacity, take in a little more air. See if you can raise the book a little higher.
• Exhale gradually, slowly counting to five. The more you exhale, the more relaxed you’ll feel.
• Repeat at least five times.
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