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Sunday, March 15, 2015

How to Prevent Colds from Becoming Asthma Attacks: Help for Asthmatics

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) states that the number of children suffering from asthma is 6.8 million, which accounts for 9.3% of children in the United States. 18.7 million adults, which accounts for 8% of the population, suffer from asthma. Pollutants, pesticides, pollens, weeds, and a number of other allergens send 1.8 million people to the emergency room every year, and while medicine helps to alleviate the symptoms of asthma, 3,630 people still die from the disease. 

If you have a child who suffers from asthma, I hope the following information will help you both prevent future asthma attacks and know how to care for your child when s/he is in the throes of an attack.

The following article was previously published on Yahoo Contributor Network September 7, 2008. Updates have been added.


I have had asthma for over half a century. A few years ago I discovered that I am also borderline COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Any cold I get is potentially dangerous as it can lead, and has in fact lead, to a full-blown asthma attack.

Winters ago, as the blustery Chicago air stung my lungs on my way to work every day, I often found myself in the emergency room waiting for an injection of Epinephrine and Aminophyline. Without those injections my wheezing would have increased and my internal organs would have shut down. I would have died.

Only after several visits did I discover one simple act that prevented the cold air from entering my lungs -- a heavy scarf. Breathing into the scarf as I walked to work allowed moist air to enter my airways. That one action saved me from what had become daily emergency room visits.

Before I learned the scarf trick, one emergency room visit landed me in the hospital for nearly three weeks. About a week and a half into my stay, my asthma became so bad I needed a breathing treatment long before the next one was due. The nurses were unable to reach the doctor but made an emergency call to the respiratory therapist who stood ready to deliver the treatment as soon as the doctor gave the go-ahead.

I sat on the edge of the bed facing the window and leaned forward (a common position for asthmatics in the throes of a vicious attack), praying for oxygen and wondering why the respiratory therapist was just standing there. I didn't know the doctor had to give his approval first.

So focused on trying to breathe, so afraid this might be my last day because I could breathe in so little air, I was unaware that my room had filled with nurses. Usually only one nurse came in to take my vitals and administer my drugs. Six of them stood around my bed, rubbing my arms, rubbing my back, stroking my hair, telling me everything would be OK. A room crowded with nurses and a respiratory therapist waiting for permission to administer treatment - all of them looking at me with a certain knowing, that if the doctor could not be reached immediately, I would die - was the scariest moment in my life. I saw fear in the eyes of everyone in the room. Could they allow me to die because they couldn't reach the doctor, or would somebody step forward to administer the drugs that would save my life?

The doctor, whom I met in the emergency room at the hospital the night I was admitted, was the type of doctor who believed his patients should accept an immobile life. He placed me on numerous medications and, after I left the hospital, made appointments for me to visit his nurse twice weekly for three allergy shots each visit. As the doctor bills mounted, so did my dependency on him. Fortunately I had insurance. And even more fortunate for me, I decided I did not want to live the rest of my life as an invalid. I switched doctors and found one whose goal was to get me completely off allergy shots and numerous medications.

Over the years, I have seen other allergists. Some were good. Some weren't. All of them required me to "visit" them every six months or at least once a year. All I needed was medication and inhalers. I knew what I had. I knew what I needed. If I left work for every medical problem I had, and if I purchased medication for every condition that required it, I would soon be without a job.

As is common these days, my insurance company kept increasing my co-pay and kept decreasing the amount of allowable services. The last company I worked for decided to put a halt to pay increases and over the years had gone from a 4% raise to nothing. Staying alive had now become a full-time job.

When my asthma crossed the border to a COPD-type respiratory problem, I now experienced two types of attacks, and I discovered that none of my asthma inhalers worked anymore for this COPD clone. A COPD attack felt different from an asthma attack. I no longer knew what I needed.

Within the last several years a new product surfaced to help those with COPD. Taken daily, not as a means to thwart an ongoing attack, but as a preventive measure, Advair proved to work well in keeping my COPD under control. Today, though, like many Americans, I am without insurance (update – I am now on Medicare). I (still) cannot afford to pay what this drug would cost every month. As a result, I have had to learn how to cope with my inability to breathe without relying on a physician.

Asthma and COPD aren't my only problems though. Combined with chronic lower back pain (I was born with scoliosis), painful arthritis down my spine, a persistent swollen right foot (even doctors at the University of Chicago were unable to figure that one out), and a proliferation of hemangiomas that are spreading like wildfire throughout my body, until this country decides that its strength is determined by the health of its citizens, I am left with only one option - being my own healer.


I have read various health books, paying particular attention to lung, asthma, or COPD-related articles. The Internet is also a great source for health-related information (stick to .gov, .org, and .edu for the best results). I plugged words like COPD and asthma into search engines. Combined with medical literature, the information I received furnished me with enough material to make the right decisions about the type of treatment that would prevent my cold from getting worse.

Consultations with pharmacists have proven to be invaluable too. I don't come to them with questions relating to diagnoses. I research my findings first and then ask their opinions about non-prescription treatment options.

What I am about to relate are procedures I follow to prevent colds from become asthma attacks.


The first and most important thing I've learned in my war against the common cold is to avoid those things to which I'm allergic. Avoiding allergens is not always easy, though, because some of the people I love the most own cats and dogs (I'm highly allergic to both). If I want to live, however, I have to avoid them (the pets - not their owners).

I sit outside at family gatherings even though allergies to grasses, pollens, weeds, and trees, put being outside in a very small time slot. Smoke, even when smokers stand across the yard, still manages to find its way into my lungs, burning them as it enters. I have had to accept over the years that I just cannot attend some functions and family gatherings. It helps to hold the get-togethers at my house.

Fragrances that some people wear cause instant migraines or immediate wheezing. Fortunately Advil Migraine (3 tablets) rids me of head pain if I can lie down for 20 minutes. Cupping several tissues over my face helps to obliterate the smell of heavy perfumes and colognes and sometimes prevents an attack.

People who drench themselves in fragrances often don't realize they reek so heavily of their scent that they make other people sick. Asthma inhalers help when the attack is an immediate response to an allergen, but my preferred method of dealing with allergens is to remove myself from their presence.


Allergies cause noses to run clear. Noses run yellow or green when the person is experiencing a cold. Yellow usually indicates infection, while green usually indicates some kind of fungal organism. Both colds and allergies can lead to asthma attacks. Colds exacerbate allergies and vice versa. Having both at the same time requires another type of attack.


In addition to avoiding allergens, I work proactively to prevent attacks at the first sign of a cold. Once the sniffling starts, once the nose starts running, I have limited time before the cold travels to my throat and into my lungs. If I can't thwart an attack at that point, I'm fighting a battle that will only worsen - and quickly. And if it starts in my nose and throat at the same time, I bring out my whole arsenal of medical weaponry.


Asthmatics are susceptible to attacks when emotions run high. Keeping my emotions on an even keel is important for two reasons: High emotional excitement restricts airways, and the less air that enters my lungs, the more upset I become. It creates a cycle that spins so out of control - it's like trying to jump off a Tilt-a-Whirl while it is still spinning. I had to learn to slow down my breathing.


If you are an asthmatic or if you love somebody who is one, you know how frightening an attack can be. But to get an idea of what an attack feels like, try this experiment. Pinch your nostrils together with one hand, place your hand over your mouth with the other and allow only the tiniest bit of air to enter your mouth, choosing perhaps a small space between your fingers. How long can you breathe that way before you remove your hand from your mouth or nose and inhale deeply?

When a person is in the midst of an asthma attack, the prospect of dying is foremost in her mind. The way I always explained how I felt to people was to say that, at its worst, it felt as if I had only a hairline of air entering my lungs - very scary.

To prevent myself from becoming emotionally distressed, I tell myself things like, "This too will pass" or I make myself a cup of herbal tea. After decades of dealing with this disorder, I know that I have to take control of my emotions and concentrate on my breathing.


To alleviate stress I breathe in slowly through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth, a process made all the more difficult when a cold prevents me from breathing through my nose. I have discovered, though, that holding a cloth over my nose while initially breathing through my mouth will eventually open up my nose so that I can breathe through it. Even in the midst of a cold, it is necessary to get moisture into the nose and mouth. Holding a cup of freshly brewed tea to my nose and mouth helps breathing too. (Update: face masks, like the type doctors and nurses wear, are readily available at pharmacies.)


Vitamin C tablets, Green Tea, Echinacea tea (I often use Celestial Seasonings Echinacea Complete Care tea purchased from my local grocery store) or Echinacea tablets, juices, and LOTS of water are the products I use in my first line of defense.

If the cold worsens, I step up my program, ingesting even more vitamin C and Echinacea and adding Hyssop tea to my regime. I frequently buy through Puritan's Pride, because they sometimes offer great "buy one - get two free" deals. Yogi Tea's "Breathe Deep" helps as well. 

Another addition to my daily defense - if I notice the cold getting worse - is an OTC (over the counter) medication - called Mucinex. At this point when mucus forms in the lungs and makes it even more difficult to breathe, Mucinex relieves congestion.

One herb I haven't tried yet, but will purchase just to have on hand is Horehound. The herb is not suggested for pregnant or nursing mothers or for children under the age of two. I found the least expensive bottle of horehound at Herbal Love Shop.


Neti pots and other nasal washing systems cleanse the nasal cavity and may prevent the cold from getting worse. If used often, they may prevent the cold from occurring in the first place. In addition to relieving allergies, they claim to help sinusitis as well.


While nasal inhalers work, becoming addicted to them doesn't. I had gotten so addicted to nasal sprays, I couldn't breathe without them. At the same time I discovered I was pregnant with my second child, I also discovered that holding tissues over my nose while breathing through my mouth eventually opened my nostrils enough, so that I was able, after several nights, to throw away the sprays. I didn't want to be addicted to anything during my pregnancy.


Another consideration when caring for an asthmatic who is experiencing cold symptoms is eliminations. Why is proper elimination necessary? According to different sources, when your digestive system is sluggish, toxins remain in your body. They either find release through your pores or through your lungs or other organs. Proper eliminations prevent the buildup of toxins in the system. Edgar Cayce spoke often of eliminating toxins from the system to maintain good health. He believed that the inability to eliminate toxins caused a variety of disorders.

While everybody would prefer to flush out the system the way nature intended, nature sometimes needs help. When you don't want to use harsh laxatives or enemas, herbs once again come to the rescue. You can find them in any health food store and you can often find them near the vitamins at your local grocery store.

Three herbs in particular work well, especially when combining two of them together. Any of the following herbs will cleanse your system: cascara sagrada, senna, or psyllium husks. Pay attention to these next few words. THESE HERBS WORK. Prepare to be close to washroom facilities. Take them at night before you go to sleep. WARNING: DO NOT go anywhere the next morning, except to the nearest latrine. And DO NOT use them every day.


Move! I'm not talking about your bowels anymore. I'm talking about your body. The doctor who expected me to live my life as an invalid wanted me to sit perfectly still and have others take care of me the rest of my life. I was twenty-five years old at the time. I was not allowed to climb stairs, to fold blankets, or to do anything that would cause my respiration to increase.

A sedentary life will put you at risk of getting all sorts of illnesses. Walk more. Get your blood circulating. The more you move, the better able your lungs will function. Exercise them.


Get plenty of rest. Yes, you've heard this admonition before, but it's true. Pay attention to your body. When you get a cold, your body knows you need rest. Listen to it so you can prevent your cold from becoming an asthma attack. Believe me when I say that if you push your body too far, it will retaliate.


At the time of my worst asthma attack, I had a cold that progressed to a respiratory infection, I was smoking, I had cats (knowing I was highly allergic to them), and I was cleaning an apartment that had several layers of dust covering every inch of the room. I was dangerously allergic to dust. I could have prevented the attack that nearly killed me if I had:

1) Given my cats to a loving home.
2) Paid somebody to dust the apartment I was going to rent.


For more information on living with lung disease, please visit the American Lung Association.


  1. My brother used to have asthma. Good thing he's outgrown it. Thanks for this relevant information. This is worth sharing.

    1. Thank you, Lux. I'm glad your brother outgrew his asthma. A lot of people who were born with asthma did. I didn't get asthma until I was 5. It has improved over the years, but allergies can trigger an attack to this day.

  2. Interesting that dry air could be a trigger. I've had reactions to mold and damp, but my body seems to thrive on dry air, the drier the better.

    1. Priscilla, I probably should have been more specific. COLD dry air closes my lungs and narrows the passages so that I can't breathe. By allowing moist air to enter my lungs during the winter months, I can more easily breathe and prevent an attack. Thank you for bringing that up.


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