Did you feel extra congested or short of breath last week? It wasn’t your imagination – last week was Asthma Peak Week. Every September, asthma attacks and hospitalizations increase, and they tend to spike around the middle of the month. Usually the third week of September is a perfect storm of ragweed pollen, mold spores, and rhinovirus. This year, COVID-19, wildfire smoke, and extra allergens stirred up by hurricanes were added to the mix.
While the ragweed pollen count should begin to decline, people with respiratory conditions should remain cautious. COVID-19 is still at large. Wildfire smoke continues to affect air quality across the country. Hurricanes present their own set of dangerous air conditions. Other allergens, air pollution, and viruses will continue to exacerbate respiratory conditions as well. Nevertheless, you can take action today to protect your lungs during Asthma Peak Week and all year long.
Avoid asthma attacks
Start by listing your asthma triggers. Hopefully, your doctor has already helped you identify these, which may include allergies to animals, pollen, mold, dust mites, or foods. Other triggers can include smoke and strong cleaning agents.
Know your early warning signs. Symptoms can seem like general tiredness or mere allergies: sneezing, itchy throat, changes in mucus. Others may be more clearly asthma-related, like a tight feeling in your chest, or chest pain. Either way, try to identify the sensations that precede an attack so you can take the proper precautions, such as taking your quick-relief medication.
Be aware of your asthma attack warning signs, such as:
- Severe shortness of breath
- Breathing becomes hard and fast
- Increase in coughing
- Walking or talking becomes difficult
- Quick-relief medications are not helping
If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Asthma attacks can be fatal, and may be much worse during Asthma Peak Week.
Then make an action plan. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has a template you can print out and fill in. Write down the names and doses of your preventative medications, your quick-relief inhalers, and other medications. Take the time to record your peak flow readings. This will help you determine how well your treatment is controlling your symptoms.
Finally, be sure to communicate. Tell your family, friends, and emergency contact about your triggers and warning signs. Give them a copy of your action plan. Avoid exercising or doing other strenuous activity by yourself. If you start having an asthma attack, you may not be able to call for help.
Create an emergency kit
Whether or not you live in an area affected by wildfires or hurricanes, it’s smart to create an emergency kit. Don’t let disasters interrupt your asthma treatment, especially during Asthma Peak Week.
Put the following in a waterproof container and keep it in a place where it can be easily accessed in the event of an emergency:
- Multiple copies of your asthma action plan
- A copy of your insurance card
- Any additional physician contact information not included on your action plan
- An extra supply of your preventative and quick-relief medications, if allowed by your physician and insurer
- If not, an extra written prescription from your physician in case your medication is lost or destroyed (Having a prescription before an emergency will help you get an emergency refill much more easily!)
- A spacer
- A Peak Flow Meter, if prescribed by your healthcare provider
- Allergy medication
Store medications properly
Many inhalers for asthma and other breathing conditions are DPIs, or dry powder inhalers. DPIs differ from MDIs, or metered dose inhalers, in that they don’t use an aerosol or other propellant to pump medication directly into the lungs. Instead, the user inhales the medication on their own.
A disadvantage of DPIs is their sensitivity to humidity. Hurricane-season humidity can make these inhalers less effective by affecting how the medication powder is deposited in the lungs. If you rely on DPIs to control your asthma and live in a humid area, try to keep your inhalers as dry as possible. Ask your doctor about adjusting your treatment plan as well.
Humidity might be the least of your worries if you’ve been impacted by a hurricane or wildfire. The effectiveness of any drug can be destroyed by high temperatures and by water, so if your inhalers have been exposed to excessive heat from fires or to contaminated water from floods, discard them. If you’re unsure whether your inhaler is safe to use, ask your pharmacist for guidance.
Use masks and filters
While we’ve all become accustomed to wearing cloth face masks, the combination of Asthma Peak Week with wildfires and hurricanes demands extra protection. If you live in an area affected by wildfires and need to go outside, start by wearing a mask with a particulate respirator. N95 masks are the lowest level of protection you should have in smoky conditions; anything less will not adequately protect you. The CDC has a full list of masks that can keep you safe. Also carry your quick-relief medicine at all times.
If at all possible, avoid going outdoors. Stay inside with windows and doors closed. Avoid running errands unless they are absolutely necessary. If you desperately need a prescription, use ScriptDrop home delivery.
If you live in an area affected by hurricanes and flooding, you’ll have a different but equally difficult asthma situation. Floods produce mold which doesn’t go away once the waters recede. When cleaning up your home and community after a flood, wear a particulate respirator mask as well. Discard anything that cannot be cleaned and dried right away. Remember that mold can hide behind large furniture and appliances and behind wallpaper.
In both cases, considering investing in a good air filtering appliance for your home. If you can’t find air filters in your area or they are not in your budget, you can rig up your own with a box fan and furnace filter.
Avoid contracting COVID-19
You know the drill. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose. Wear a mask in public and avoid large groups of people. Get tested if you think you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. If you do contract COVID-19, ask your doctor whether there are extra steps you need to take to avoid an asthma attack.
It’s also the right time of year to get a flu shot. Asthma can worsen any respiratory illness.
Asthma Peak Week Takeaways
While Asthma Peak Week has already passed, it’s unclear what else 2020 has in store for us. The wildfires on the West coast continue to burn. Experts predict more tropical storms that could become hurricanes. Both can exacerbate asthma symptoms.
In short, if you suffer from asthma or any other chronic illness, it’s better to be prepared. Remember to pick up your prescriptions in a timely manner or use home delivery if you can’t leave the house. Create an action plan and emergency kit. Above all, communicate with the people you’re close to: they need to know your treatment plan as well as you do.