Though I am first and foremost my patient’s advocate, a respiratory therapist, and an asthma educator, I consider myself a teacher at heart.

I work with people who have chronic lung conditions and those experiencing a respiratory emergency.

When it comes to asthma, helping people identify their triggers, recognize and manage their symptoms, and follow their action plan can mean the difference between controlling a flare-up or winding up at my hospital in respiratory distress.

I believe that knowledge offered by the American Lung Association’s Asthma Basics course can change your life. Here’s why.

Often people will tell me, “I had asthma as a child but I outgrew it.” If you have asthma, it never really goes away.

There’s always some degree of inflammation in your airways. It may be more under control now than before, but it is still there.

With asthma, the goal is control — and if you don’t subject your body to the irritants or triggers that your airways react to, you may experience fewer symptoms and breathe easier.

Your asthma action plan should be reviewed a minimum of once a year. Sometimes, medications need to be changed or adjustments need to be made based on your level of control.

The American Lung Association’s Asthma Basics course helps you identify triggers that may be in your environment, things that you might not be aware of.

It’s not uncommon for people to want to stop taking their controller medication because they start to feel better and have reduced symptoms.

While you might not have experienced a flare-up in a while, if you’re on a maintenance medication, it’s important to continue to take it until your doctor says otherwise.

These medications help reduce the swelling, irritation, and mucus in the airway — it’s no wonder patients feel better when they take them.

Even with all of our advances in medicine, we still see deaths from asthma.

Often, people wait too long to seek treatment. Early interventions can stave off a more serious event, so it’s important for caregivers, teachers, fitness instructors, school nurses, and other people to know what to do if someone has a flare-up.

It’s also important you know what to do if your symptoms worsen.

When you dispense an inhaler, it can come out at a speed of 60 miles per hour, which makes it difficult to make sure all the medication makes it into your lungs, as opposed to landing on your tongue or the back of your throat.

Our hospital gives out spacers to teach people how to properly dispense their medication in a way that is as effective as possible and ensures the medication gets down in the airways.

Sometimes, teaching someone proper inhaler technique is just enough to improve their symptoms because the medication is finally getting where it needs to go. As we say, it’s a lung treatment, not a tongue treatment.

We always try to encourage best practices and recommend spacers with inhalers.

Nobody likes to come to the hospital, especially now that we’re experiencing a pandemic. Something I’ve experienced in our hospital is the patient delaying their own care. People are afraid to come and be treated.

Part of an asthma action plan is knowing what to do when your symptoms continue to worsen — which means getting medical help once you enter the red zone of your action plan.

You can’t wait until you have an emergency to figure out what to do. You have to plan ahead.

Educate your caregivers and family members, know your triggers, recognize your symptoms, and have medications on hand. Often symptoms start to occur over days, but they can be subtle: cough, wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, and shortness of breath that worsen over time.

Having a peak flow meter on hand can be a really helpful tool for identifying asthma symptoms that are worsening.

A peak flow meter is a small, plastic handheld device used to measure airflow from your lungs. When your numbers start to drop, it usually means you’re getting sick and need to follow your asthma action plan.

My hospital teaches patients how to use a peak flow meter and also offers them to patients as a means of monitoring their symptoms.

I worked with a woman whose living conditions made her asthma worse — she had rodents in her home and financially wasn’t able to move elsewhere.

Environmental issues are a huge factor in asthma symptoms. Whether it’s mold, smoke, pets, dust mites, cockroaches, or mice, it’s important to try to eliminate exposure to them as much as possible to reduce your symptoms.

Still, in working with this woman, I found that she had been mistakenly using her maintenance medication when she had a flare-up, which does nothing for acute symptoms, and taking her albuterol rescue inhaler every day, when it was there to address worsening symptoms.

Just by ensuring she was taking the right medications at the right times, I helped her manage her asthma more effectively and stave off flare-ups. In the event of an asthma attack, the albuterol is designed to offer quick relief, so you don’t want to mix up those medicines.

It is important that patients are taught what medications they take, what the medications do, and how to use them.

There seems to be more awareness of respiratory issues right now around the ways that communities can help people with chronic conditions, partly because COVID-19 has resulted in a population of people whose lungs were impacted.

Environmental issues are similar, in that they can impact everyone who lives in an area.

Community health initiatives have been really effective at offering ongoing therapies for people with lung issues like COPD and asthma.

Locally, we run a very successful “Better Breathers” pulmonary support group, sponsored by the American Lung Association. It helps people with chronic lung diseases learn to breathe better and manage their symptoms.

Since the pandemic, we’ve been doing this virtually over WebEx and we are offering harmonica lessons as well.

Playing the harmonica is excellent for improving your breathing. It’s therapeutic and fun, and the participants really enjoy the learning as well as the social aspect, even if it is virtual.

Education can make such a difference with conditions like asthma, and it’s a matter of being able to reach people — which is where community organizations come in.

Taking the Asthma Basics class through the American Lung Association’s website can help community members teach management skills and promote health and wellness.

People are always really thankful, and often they comment “No one has ever told me that before” or “I have learned so much from all this information.” The class is designed for lay people as well as health professionals — anyone can benefit from this information.

Elizabeth Hurley has over 26 years experience in the field of respiratory care and is currently employed by Bayhealth Hospital – Sussex Campus in Milford, Delaware. She has served on the Board of Directors for the Delaware Society of Respiratory Care and was awarded the “Community Health Educator Award” for Delaware. At heart, she’s a teacher who loves empowering her patients and community. She teaches at a local college and volunteers with the American Lung Association’s “Better Breathers” pulmonary support group, where she’s teaching her patients to play harmonica.