Approximately 20.3 million people in the US have been diagnosed with asthma, with at least six million of them children under the age of 18.
(Source: Rush University Medical Center)

For people suffering from chronic or recurring difficulty breathing, life can hold some frightening prospects. Symptoms may be ongoing or appear unexpectedly, making every day a potentially life-threatening one. Respiratory problems have been linked to environmental factors such as smog, pollution and work-related chemicals. In many instances they are caused, or aggravated, by years of smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke. In cases involving asthma, the problem may also be genetic. Regardless of what the cause, chronic respiratory problems can be alarming, debilitating, and even fatal.

A common and growing problem

Although respiratory problems are more prevalent in urban environments, they can affect people of all ages, all walks of life and from all communities. As a result, when breathing problems arise, everyone, regardless of income or living circumstances, needs to be well aware of the potential risks and prepared to take prompt action.

A scratchy throat and stuffy nose may not be “just an allergy”

Because serious diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma may be difficult to diagnose, it is important for those experiencing breathing difficulties to be diligent in pursuing a diagnosis and treatment that will effectively address all their symptoms. Although allergies and asthma may have many similarities, asthma is a dangerous condition that, if not treated properly, can be life threatening. Similarly, COPD, which is an inflammation of the lung tissue that prevents the lungs from inflating and deflating properly, can cause permanent damage and disability if not treated aggressively.

What to expect

If a doctor determines that you have a respiratory condition, he may prescribe medication to reduce inflammation and prevent escalation of your symptoms. In addition to medication, you may also need to make some lifestyle modifications. For example, if your problems are related to your workplace environment, you may need to wear a protective mask or clothing. Likewise, if mold, lead paint or asbestos are in the home and the situation is not correctable, it may require that you change your residence.

What to do if you're short of breath

Being short of breath can feel scary, but it helps if you know what to do. If you find yourself having breathing difficulties:

  • Stop and rest in a comfortable position
  • Keep your head and shoulders down
  • Breathe in through your mouth and blow out through your mouth as fast as is necessary
  • Begin to blow out longer, but not forcibly (use pursed lip breathing if you find it effective)
  • Slow your breathing down and breathe through your nose
  • Begin slow abdominal breathing. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Focus on allowing the belly to rise when inhaling and fall when exhaling. Hold the chest still. The objective is to breathe only with the belly (your diaphragm) at a rate of about six (6) breaths per minute.
  • Once in control, continue for 5 minutes longer

(Source: The Canadian Lung Association)

Helpful resources

Social service agencies can help you determine whether you are eligible for disability payments or even if you have probable cause for a lawsuit stemming from a respiratory disease or related condition. If you are a smoker, or if someone in your home smokes, your social worker can help put you in touch with programs to help you quit. Your doctor can also help you determine exactly what environmental substances may be aggravating your condition, so you can eliminate them from your home or take other corrective measures.

Getting better… and staying that way

Once a person has been diagnosed with a chronic respiratory problem, a period of rehabilitation is often required to repair existing damage and restore control of the situation. Pulmonary rehab helps increase the patient’s lung capacity, regain strength, and develop ways of breathing more effectively. People are often amazed at how effectively they can learn to compensate for reduced lung function. Because diminished respiratory function can be so debilitating and frightening, many patients also require counseling services to help them deal with the stress and to accomplish the behavioral and lifestyle changes their conditions may entail.