I was first diagnosed with asthma in 2008, and in the years since then I’ve made it my duty to learn everything I can about it and be an advocate for myself and others living with asthma. I guess you could say I’m a bit of an “expert”!
And yet despite how much the scientific community has uncovered about the mysteries of asthma, I still regularly find myself learning new things as I do research for articles (and when I get generally curious and dig deep into the vast universe of Google).
How many of these lesser-known asthma facts were you aware of?
1. Just because it “looks like” asthma doesn’t mean it’s asthma
In a Canadian study, up to a third of people diagnosed with asthma — wait for it — don’t actually have asthma, but other conditions that often mimic symptoms of asthma. Common “asthma mimic” culprits include:
- vocal cord dysfunction, in which the vocal cords pull inward and block the airway (trachea)
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, or atypical acid reflux/heartburn)
- heart disease
- interstitial lung disease
If your asthma doesn’t seem to be responding to treatment and changing meds doesn’t help, it might be time to check in with your doc to see if another condition might be the problem.
2. Outgrowing asthma? Not so fast.
It seems the verdict isn’t quite in on this one, although often the general public perceives asthma to be a disease that is commonly outgrown. In a small study, many parents surveyed thought that their child would outgrow asthma, thus posing detriment to the child’s asthma management.
Conversely, after initial research I did on asthma when I was first diagnosed, I always thought that once you have asthma, you always have flares of asthma — but symptoms may resolve at times in a person’s life, known as a remission, and then could return later.
We are never totally “home free.”
Whether asthma can be fully “outgrown” — and go away forever — is still not fully supported by the medical community.
3. You can have asthma without having any allergies
This type of asthma, nonallergic or intrinsic asthma, is often found in older adults, specifically women. People with allergic asthma, however, often have nonallergic asthma triggers too, like exercise, illness, or cold/humid air.
So just because your allergy test is negative doesn’t mean asthma is totally off the table — allergy tests are diagnostic tests for allergies, not for asthma! Plus, allergy tests are localized to your region, so you could have allergies elsewhere in the country, continent, or world and just not be exposed to triggers regularly enough to know.
4. Not all triggers are created equal
OK, so you may have known this from personal experience. Every asthma case is different, and there’s a complicated web of substances that may or may not trigger your symptoms. Unfortunately, learning about your individual triggers is a process of trial and error.
For me, the common cold and other respiratory infections are by far my worst triggers, followed by cold air and moderate exercise. Beyond that, I’m sensitive to perfumes and fragrances, but the effect they have on my asthma varies by level of exposure.
5. An asthma attack may not always affect oxygen levels
When you have an asthma attack, your larger airways (the bronchi and bronchioles) constrict due to inflammation and your lungs produce excess mucus, making it difficult to breathe.
However, the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs) where oxygen enters the body aren’t affected by asthma. So during a mild asthma attack, even as the airways get constricted and swollen, there’s still enough space for oxygenated air to come through so that your oxygen saturation won't drop.
Bottom line: Oxygen levels in the normal range, 95 percent or better, may not always be the best predictor of how severe an asthma flare will be. You can still be a very sick person with asthma and early on in an attack have a normal oxygen saturation. Oxygen levels may not drop unless the symptoms progress or if the attack becomes moderate or severe.
Your symptoms can help guide you to how serious an asthma flare may be, so don’t ignore them just because your oxygen levels may be normal.
Kerri MacKay is a writer, quantified self-enthusiast, and ePatient with ADHD and asthma. She is the Canadian Severe Asthma Network patient group lead, involved in asthma research as a patient investigator with the University of Alberta’s Pulmonary Research Group, and a peer mentor for children with asthma with Asthma Canada’s Asthma Pals mentorship program. She coaches the Manitoba Goalball team with Manitoba Blind Sports and young athletes with Special Olympics Manitoba. She loves airplanes, traveling, writing, cupcakes, notebooks, and T-shirts. She blogs at KerriOnThePrairies.com and is on Twitter.
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