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Monday, April 5, 2010

Asthma myths

There's so many myths about asthma that have been busted over the years you could probably fill a 1,000 page novel. This post just touches the surface.

Trust me when I say this is the first of many such posts.

10 Asthma Myths Busted
by Rick Frea Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Asthma myths go back as far as 3,000 B.C with the first recordings of "gasping breaths" in ancient Sumerian cuneiform. In fact, since asthma is such a mysterious disease, once someone came up with an idea, it was accepted as fact until further proof was obtained.

As I write about some old remedies for asthma, you might just cringe. Thankfully, these myths have been busted.

1. Trepanation cures asthma: Trepanation was a medical procedure in which a hole was drilled into the skull to treat health problems. Of course there's no proof this was actually used for asthma, yet I'd imagine some severe asthmatics had their heads split open to release the evil spirits that were causing this inexplicable disease. Thankfully this myth was busted years ago.

2. Bleeding cures asthma: Be it evil spirits or demons, in the middle ages diseases were thought to be caused by evil. A Byzantine doctor recommended cutting a vein on the arm and making the evil come out that way. This therapy was used even through the 19th century. Another Byzantine doctor recommended blistering an asthmatic's skin as a means of letting the evil substances out.

3. Animal dung cures asthma: Desperate for a cure, the Ancient Egyptians believed swallowing elephant or camel dung would cure asthma. While the ancient Greeks accurately defined asthma, their remedies weren't any better.

4. Cold air cures asthma: One renaissance doctor believed asthmatics got sick because they were too cold. He recommended asthmatics avoid fresh air and to "sit next to a fire of peat or coal at all times." (I learned about the above myths in
this handout).

5. Asthma is psychosomatic: 19th century doctors were so convinced asthma was a psychological disorder they dedicated books to it. Dr. Henry Hyde Salter wrote the most famous one in 1860 called "
On Asthma." While his myth was busted in the 1950s, some of Salter's recommended cures were alcohol, smoking cigarettes, Indian Hemp, coffee, opiates and even making yourself pass out by using formaldehyde. I expound on these asthma remedies in this post. Now we know that while anxiety and stress are asthma triggers, they do not cause asthma. Instead asthma is a disease of chronic inflammation of the air passages in the lungs.

6. Jaw reshaping cures asthma: In the 1940s some doctors observed in the Middle East, where most of the people had "lantern-jaws," asthma was rare. So they recommended asthmatics have their jaws reshaped. Asthmatic Harold Beck wrote about his experiences with this
here. Actually, since there were few asthma remedies that could be relied upon, nontraditional therapies like this became commonplace.

7. You'll someday outgrow your asthma: This is a myth that is still spread, even by the best asthma doctors. The truth is, while your asthma may go into hiding, it never goes away. This is why former childhood asthmatics (as I wrote about
here) would be wise to be vigilant to asthma triggers like smoke and viruses, and continue to see an asthma doctor at least once a year. It's possible your asthma might show up again in adulthood if you don't watch out.

8. Asthma should be treated only during an acute attack: As recently as 1990 my doctor told me to stop taking my inhaled steroids when I was feeling better because he feared the side effects. He also believed asthma only needed to be treated during an acute attack because that was when the lungs were inflamed. Modern wisdom busted this myth based on the following facts:

  • Asthmatics always have inflamed bronchi that are sensitive to asthma triggers.
  • Asthma can be prevented if meds are used every day to control this inflammation.
  • Proper use of inhaled steroids, followed by rinsing, makes side effects rare.
  • It takes 2-3 weeks for controller meds to start working, so you should never stop taking them without first consulting with your physician.
9. Nebulizers work better than inhalers: Test after test has been done on this topic, and every one I've ever seen reveals that if you take your inhaler properly and with a spacer, it works just as well as a nebulizer. Another fallacy is that hospital nebulizers work better than the ones you have at home. The truth is, we use the same Albuterol and Xopenex that you use at home.

10. Asthma is a good excuse not to exercise: Think again. In fact, the opposite holds true. Asthma makes it urgent that you do exercise, even if you have
hardluck asthma. Exercise makes your heart and lungs stronger, and ultimately makes it easier to control your asthma. So, even if you have hardluck asthma, you still need to get off your butt and stay active.

Even in my lifetime -- and yours -- I have seen some pretty good asthma myths BUSTED! Yet even busted myths have a way of sticking around way longer than they should.

Believe it or not, this post just scratches the surface on asthma myths busted through the years. If you were the victim of an asthma myth that was later busted, please let us know in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

Your first two "cures"--trepanation and blood-letting--may have in fact produced immediate, if temporary, results, by causing an adrenaline spike.
I mention this because years ago, when a hospital nurse ran an IV, I felt somewhat better instantly, before any treatment had time to take effect. I was told that that that reaction was from an adrenaline surge.
Come to think of it, dung-swallowing just might do that too.

Anonymous said...

Anne, one way that I dealt with flares if nobody was helping me when I was a kid was to pinch or bite myself since pain helped me take my mind off of how short of breath I was (I was an uncontrolled asthmatic for the first eight years of my life, and there were a lot of times when I was so short of breath I was desperate for anything to take my mind off it). It probably have worked the same way.

Looking back on it, it's kind of funny that when my parents found out, they sent me to a child psychologist. I think their time would have been better spent sending me to a pediatric pneumologist - especially since this particular child psychologist was certain that my asthma was an attempt to get my parents' attention and that I'd get all better if they made sure I felt cared for. *eyeroll*

Medical Mojave said...

I disagree re: the nebulizer vs. inhaler. The nebulizer works better for me because it's more medication--especially in the ER when they do 3 albuterols with 1 atrovent vial. I tend not to use a spacer so perhaps I should revisit that when using the albuterol inhaler. However, if I'm really really sick (i.e. getting into ER territory), I much prefer the nebulizer because it gives me sooooo much more time to get the meds into my lungs.