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Emmy-winning actor Tony Hale shares how living with asthma helped him play the beloved characters he’s famous for, and why he wants others living with the condition to know ‘you aren’t limited.’ Images Provided by Asthma Behaving Badly
  • Actor Tony Hale shares what it’s like living with asthma.
  • He teamed up with an educational campaign to spread awareness about the condition.
  • Experts share ways to manage asthma.

Two-time Emmy-winning actor and author Tony Hale knows how to play quirky and anxious characters well, like Buster on Arrested Development and Gary Walsh on Veep.

While his acting skills are strong, he said he pulls inspiration for many of his characters from his own lifelong journey with asthma.

“[I] did deal with a lot of anxiety as a kid with my asthma; there is a definite connection there, and I know how to [play] anxiety well,” Hale told Healthline.

Even though living with asthma as a kid was difficult, he said he appreciates how the experience helped ground his work and art.

“When someone’s not dealing with [asthma], they don’t understand the idea of your life source being taken away from you and struggling with breathing,” he said. “I know what it’s like to live with this numbing anxiety of what’s coming around the corner, [so I] can play it a little more realistically.”

His real-life condition crossed paths with his life on set when he experienced an asthma attack while filming the show Justified in 2010. One of the scenes took place inside horse stables; however, Hale didn’t realize it until he arrived on set. Of all days, that day, he forgot his inhalers.

“[Someone] on set — one of the crew members — had an inhaler. I was incredibly grateful, and it was like this angel just parting the crowd with an inhaler,” said Hale. “[In] that moment, it’s so scary, and I cannot believe I wasn’t prepared.”

He has lived with asthma for as far back as he can remember and credits his parents for being supportive and advocating for his care by facilitating diligent relationships with doctors who developed personal treatment plans for him.

“A lot of people out there don’t have that, and I highly encourage everyone to have that one-on-one [with doctors] because every equation doesn’t work for every person,” said Hale.

Connecting with other kids who had asthma also brought him comfort.

“I was like, ‘oh my gosh does this happen to you?’ and they’d be like, ‘yeah.’ I didn’t feel like such a freak, almost, or that something’s dramatically wrong with [me],” said Hale.

He hopes to provide that same level of connection and comfort to the 25 million Americans living with asthma by sharing his story. Hale teamed up with Asthma Behaving Badly, an educational campaign developed to spread awareness about the condition.

“[I] think that what encourages me the most [is] to be able to be a voice and to hopefully raise that empathy, raise that awareness because it’s not something that is necessarily talked about in the public very much,” said Hale.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) defines asthma as “a long-term disease that causes inflammation and swelling of the airways.”

While asthma is often thought of as one condition, Dr. Sherry Farzan, allergist and immunologist at Northwell Health, said there are different types, such as eosinophilic asthma, non-eosinophilic asthma, adult-onset obesity-associated asthma, steroid nonresponsive asthma, “and many others that are being discovered and studied,” she told Healthline.

Classic symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

“When people with asthma are not wheezing or coughing, that doesn’t mean the airways are normal,” Dr. Gary Stadtmauer, allergist and immunologist at City Allergy, told Healthline.

He explained that there are two elements in the lungs that are affected by asthma. Inflammation of the bronchial tubes and spasm of the involuntary muscles in the airways.

That spasm can temporarily be improved by the reliever (bronchodilating medications) but doesn’t treat the underlying airway inflammation, which is treated by anti-inflammatories (usually inhaled steroids).

He also made sure to point out that the inhaled steroids used to treat asthma stay in the lungs only and are different than the performance-enhancing (muscle-building) steroids and are quite safe.

Most asthmatics have a specific type of airway inflammation involving the allergic cell, the eosinophil, which responds well to inhaled steroid treatments but for the.

For more severe asthmatics, treatment with higher doses of inhaled steroids combined with long-acting reliever medications may be effective, but if not, other treatments like biologics (targeted and highly effective anti-inflammatory therapy) may be considered.

“Due to the higher cost, patients don’t start on these medications. We would try the other options first,” said Stadtmauer.

“It’s really the very end of the bronchial tubes where you’ll see most of the allergic inflammation,” Stadtmauer said. “[But] there’s also involuntary muscles in the airway [that can spasm] and what happens is that these two elements of asthma can exist at the same time, or you could have some inflammation narrowing the airway but without active spasm of the muscles.”

Because there are two ways that the airways narrow, he said there are two basic types of medication—bronchial dilators (rescue medication used during an attack) and anti-inflammatories (used daily to control symptoms).

“When people take the classic reliever pump when having an asthma attack and they can suddenly breathe, that is a bronchial dilator that dilates the airways by relaxing these involuntary muscles in the airway. But they don’t treat the underlying process of inflammation,” he said.

The advent of combination inhalers can treat both, and are helpful for people who find using the different inhalers properly a challenge, said Farzan.

“Many patients confuse the controller and rescue medications, so [I] reinforce that with patients at their regular follow-ups to make sure they are using their medications appropriately,” she said.

For people with severe cases of asthma, such as eosinophilic asthma, in which eosinophils, a type of white blood cell, triggers airway inflammation, other treatments like biologics may be considered.

“But patients don’t start on these medications. We would try other options first,” said Stadtmauer.

When it comes to asthma triggers, these vary from person to person. However, according to the AAFA, common allergens include dust, pet dander, certain foods, or exercise.

“Avoidance of triggers is an important part of asthma control,” said Farzan.

For Hale, asthma symptoms tend to be triggered around springtime, “[but] that’s the thing with asthma it’s not really a one-size-fits-all thing, so it could kind of be triggered by random things, but typically, probably in pollen season is when I’ll struggle a little bit,” he said.

Personalizing the asthma experience is exactly what he aims to do by speaking out, especially when talking with others who live with asthma.

“[It lets] them feel seen. I know for myself there is a tremendous amount of power in that and to be able to give that to somebody else and just talk openly about it,” he said.

Now in his 50s, Hale knows how to best manage his condition, but he remembers the years where he didn’t. With more research, resources, and treatments available for asthma, he said the condition no longer holds people back.

“[Some] people don’t speak up about [asthma] because they may think people might think it could limit what they can do, and nowadays it does not limit you,” he said. “You can do whatever; you’re not limited.”