When I was first diagnosed with asthma, it was hard to get a doctor to answer my questions. I had dozens of them, all regarding my treatment, my triggers, and some asthma symptoms that were worrying me. But it seemed like the second my doctor heard the tell tale wheeze rattling around my chest, that was it. Here’s an inhaler, avoid irritants, and off you go.
I had mild asthma as a kid, often induced by exercise or sickness, and I received similar treatment. Neither my doctor or my family ever treated my asthma as anything more than a mild inconvenience, because that’s all it was. There was nothing unusual about it. My lungs were kind of unreliable, but there’s nothing special about that—in fact, asthma is so common that according to the CDC, in the United States 7 percent of adults and 8 percent of children have been diagnosed with it.
When my childhood asthma came back as an adult, I knew that I was dealing with a different kind of beast. After 20 years of sucking down second-hand smoke, a bad bout of pneumonia had left me with necrotic lung tissue, an inescapable fatigue, constant tightness in my chest and an ever-present wheezing noise when I breathed. I couldn’t sleep through a night, I interrupted every class and meeting I was in with a persistent cough, my head was always killing me, and no one around me understood how something as simple as asthma could be ruining my life.
Halfway through my senior year of college, I spent the worst night of my life leaning against my bathroom wall, wheezing and gasping like a fish out of water, and wondering whether it was irrational to go to the hospital. But despite my obvious problems I refused to go. It was only asthma, I told myself. Millions of people have asthma and just deal with it. They don’t fall apart. It’s not the asthma making you feel like this, it’s all in your head, I told myself.
This denial of my own health was dangerous, but a natural reaction to a year and a half of frustration. I wanted answers, and no one was inclined to give them. So I did the worst possible thing someone with a medical problem can do: I went online. There are a lot of preconceptions out there about asthma, but it was overwhelmingly comforting to me to find studies and facts to back up so many things I had thought for so long about my condition—things that no one even talks about.
No One’s Asthma Is The Same
This is the single most important thing to remember about asthma, and something that no doctor had bothered to tell me. My asthma didn’t look like the kid on TV with an inhaler, and I didn’t experience it the same way as my friend with exercise-induced asthma did. It’s a condition that, just like the people who have it, is diverse. It hits us all with different levels of severity, which is why it is so extremely important to develop an individualized action plan with your doctor.
Muscle Pain, Fatigue, and Headaches Aren’t Uncommon
There are a lot of “pains of life” symptoms that can get rolled in with asthma, and when you say “my asthma is making my head hurt,” people sometimes roll their eyes or don’t understand. If you complain to your doctor of shortness of breath and a headache, they aren’t going to immediately jump to asthma. But instead of thinking you’re a hypochondriac, consider the larger picture: if you stay up all night with shortness of breath, you will be exhausted during the day. Long fits of coughing—be you asthmatic or not—will make the muscles in your chest hurt and give you a headache.
Even migraines aren’t completely unheard of for those suffering from asthma. A 2015 study found that those with asthma had almost twice the risk of developing chronic migraines as those without the lung disease. The link may be in the nature of the two conditions, which are both caused by inflammation. The study found that the more severe the asthma, the more likely the individual was to develop migraines—but they firmly believed that by managing asthma symptoms, the risk of migraines would decrease.
Your Triggers May Be Weird, And Everywhere
In my experience, one of the worst things about asthma is thinking you know what’s going to set you off, doing everything you can to avoid it, only to discover that just sitting in rush hour traffic can set you off. And there are intangible triggers that effect many asthmatics that you can’t control, like crying or stress. And if you’re like me, say goodbye to the Fourth of July, because Independence Day fireworks mean cloistering yourself in your house over the long weekend as your overexcited neighbors blow up the block.
Your Asthma May Be Worse On Your Period
You’ve broken out, you’re crampy, you’re pissed at the world, and your asthma seems to be worse. According to research, some women can have the pleasure of adding asthma to the list of uncomfortable period symptoms. Which is just absolutely joyous.
Anxiety Is Normal, And Not In Your Head
Many people who have asthma have anxiety relating to their condition, and it’s not abnormal to experience this. It’s an unfortunately self-fulfilling cycle: stress can trigger asthma symptoms, which in turn can cause more stress. Those who have depression separate from their asthma problems may see it increase, and it can be difficult to find asthma and depression medications that can work concurrently, which is why it’s so crucial to work with your doctor to find the right balance to manage your health. Though many people have dismissed asthma as an “emotional” condition, it’s not. It’s extremely real, and very dangerous in its own way. Even though there may be a correlation between your anxiety and your symptoms, it’s imperative to remember that it is not in your head.