Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation that narrows the airways. This makes breathing difficult. Common asthma symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.
Different irritants or allergens can trigger an asthma exacerbation, also known as an asthma attack. Exacerbations can range from mild to potentially life threatening.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, an estimated 26.5 million people have asthma in the United States. This includes 20.4 million adults and 6.1 million children.
We spoke with four of those people to learn how the condition affects them, including the challenges they have confronted and overcome.
Joyce Brewer is an Atlanta-area blogger and host at MommyTalkShow.com, an online platform where she writes about the joys and challenges of parenting. Among other topics, her stories have featured asthma and food allergy — two conditions that affect her 11-year-old son, AJ.
AJ was only a toddler when Brewer noticed that viral infections hit him particularly hard.
“I noticed that a cold wasn’t just a cold. A cold was wheezing and crying and much more than just the average,” she said.
When she took him to urgent care, they told her that AJ likely had asthma — a diagnosis that his pediatrician confirmed.
The learning curve for managing asthma was steep, Brewer recalled. It got more challenging when AJ started school.
“Once his kindergarten year hit, and he was in school 5 days a week and got exposed to other germs, it took his asthma to a whole other level,” she said.
From the time AJ was about 4 to 8 years old, almost any respiratory infection would trigger an asthma exacerbation that required overnight breathing treatments. This led to a lot of late nights and tired mornings for the whole family. AJ was making regular trips to the school nurse, as well as to his pediatrician for steroid treatments.
AJ’s father, Antoine Sr., also had asthma as a child, but he was a teenager when he last experienced symptoms. Asthma symptoms diminish by adolescence in 16 to 60 percent of kids affected by the condition, according to a 2019 research review.
AJ’s own symptoms have noticeably improved over the last 2 years, during which time he’s switched from in-person schooling to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I haven’t had an attack, or a random coughing fit, or gotten sick at all other than just a little runny nose,” AJ said. His asthma symptoms have improved so much during his time at home that his pediatrician said he no longer needs to take daily maintenance medications.
Will those improvements last when AJ returns to in-person classes? That remains to be seen. His family hopes his asthma will go into remission and stay there — like his father’s asthma did.
Angel Melendez also developed asthma in early childhood. Now 27, he continues to live with the condition and its many effects on his daily life.
“I call myself a hospital kid,” Melendez told Healthline. “I literally grew up in the hospital. I was always being hospitalized for asthma episodes.”
Melendez is one of the millions of Hispanic people affected by asthma. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanic people are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white people to visit the emergency department for asthma. Hispanic children are 40 percent more likely to die from the condition. Asthma also disproportionately affects Black Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives.
Melendez’s asthma triggers include dust, which is hard to avoid in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Pollen, animal dander, exercise, and emotional stress also trigger his symptoms.
“If I’m going outdoors and know it’s a windy day, I’ve always worn a face mask. If I’m going hiking, I try to wear something that covers my mouth and nose, so I don’t breathe in any pollen or dirt,” Melendez said.
“I would always avoid activities like heavy running or difficult hikes because I knew it could cause an asthma exacerbation, and people wouldn’t understand,” he added. “‘Well, you look fine, you’re talking fine, so why can’t you do these activities?’ My asthma won’t allow me to.”
Throughout his life, Melendez has faced barriers to getting treatment for his asthma. Growing up, there weren’t enough healthcare professionals in the area where he lived.
“Sometimes the providers that were available wouldn’t give me the best medical treatment, either because of language barriers or because of lack of knowledge of how to treat asthma,” he said.
Now, Melendez himself works as a registered respiratory care therapist. He’s also a patient advocate for the nonprofit organization Allergy & Asthma Network (AAN). His personal experiences with asthma have instilled in him a deep commitment to improving asthma education and support, including for Hispanic community members.
“I push for more thorough asthma education, for not just the patients, but caregivers, family members, and the general population,” Melendez said. “There’s not enough Spanish instruction, Spanish information, or interpreters for proper asthma education, so some people are getting asthma education in English when it’s not their primary language.”
Aghogho Boccardi is a 30-year-old science teacher, painter, and the writer behind Hope Like a Mother website. She lives in New York City with her young son and husband.
Boccardi first developed asthma 4 years ago, when she was in her mid-20s. Although asthma typically appears in childhood, it can develop at any age. Asthma is more often diagnosed in adulthood in women than men.
Boccardi believes that pollen was her initial asthma trigger. When she moved away from her old neighborhood, her symptoms improved. But then she began to work at an old school in the Bronx, and her symptoms returned.
“My classroom is very old. They had a lot of books from the ’50s that nobody was using anymore that were piled with dust and cockroaches,” Boccardi told Healthline. “I read a long time ago that cockroaches are one of the triggers for asthma, so I believe that was what brought back my symptoms.”
Boccardi’s asthma would flare for months at a time. She would cough, wheeze, and lose her voice, which made it hard to teach.
“The students found it funny that I would come to school, and I would just write on the board, ‘no talking today, I lost my voice,’” she said. “It became a running joke.”
Boccardi’s principal didn’t understand. She had to sit him down, explain her symptoms, and share information about the role of cockroaches as an asthma trigger.
One of her students also had asthma, and his nose would bleed when he spent time in her classroom.
Once the principal began to understand the problem, he asked the school’s maintenance workers to clear the old books from the classroom and conduct a deep clean.
“It’s a very underserved, underrepresented school in the Bronx, and we don’t have a lot of resources,” Boccardi said, “but together, we were able to clear the classroom.”
This helped reduce her symptoms, but it didn’t solve the problem completely.
Now, Boccardi is on a leave of absence from work. She said she would like to return to teaching one day, but it would be challenging to go back to that school.
Julianne Adjutant is a 50-year-old medical assistant in Maine. She first developed symptoms of asthma 8 years ago. “It’s very random,” Adjutant said. “I’d never had any allergies or anything like that growing up.”
Adjutant struggled to pinpoint her asthma triggers at first. She tried one treatment after another, but none of them provided lasting relief. Her symptoms began to affect her ability to get going in the morning, function at work, and do things that mattered to her.
“The year I got diagnosed, the exacerbations would be daily,” she recalled. “I was going to the hospital at least once a week. I work in the medical profession, so it was kind of humiliating being hauled out by emergency rescue.”
Eventually, Adjutant realized she couldn’t work anymore. She took a leave of absence, starting in 2017. The next year she got married, and shortly afterward, she moved with her husband to Florida with the hope that a change in climate might help.
“I didn’t have a sense of what was ahead in the future. I just was living in the moment, doing everything I can,” she said. “I stayed in Florida for about 6 months, and that didn’t work, so I came back to Maine and just picked up with my physicians.”
During one of her visits with a specialist, Adjutant learned about a clinical trial that was recruiting participants. Participants in the trial were taking the biologic medication Tezspire (tezepelumab-ekko). It has since been approved to treat severe asthma. Adjutant decided to enroll in the study.
“I noticed improvement, I would say, almost instantly. Within 30 to 60 days, I was doing things that I hadn’t been able to do before. Being active, climbing, walking, doing things that I really enjoyed doing. I started to slowly become the person that I had been,” Adjutant said.
Looking back now, Adjutant is glad she persevered.
“There’s a lot of treatments that I tried, and I feel like not giving up was one of the greatest things that I could have done for myself,” she said.