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Asthma attacks: How to fight back

Everyone with asthma knows the tight-chested, breath-stealing, panicky feeling of an asthma attack. Asthma sufferers may have a wheezing cough that lasts for days, but usually life is normal until an asthma "trigger" sets off a suffocating attack. Suddenly, your airways narrow as lung muscles contract, the airway walls swell, and thick mucus is produced.

Pollen, dust, exercise, stress, certain foods and medicines all serve as asthma triggers. The good news is, these triggers are all, to some extent, under your control. In other words, you can make a difference!

Keep your house clean and mold-free. Allergic reactions trigger most asthma attacks. Allergy triggers, or allergens, include pollen, dust, mold, animal hair and feathers. Clean your house regularly to keep dust and mold to a minimum.

Vacuum at least once a week.

Wash your linens, pillows and sheets once a week.

Keep the damp places of your house, especially your basement and bathroom, clean.

Keep the humidity in your house low. Humidifiers and vaporizers will make your house more humid and encourage mold to grow. Using an air conditioner is the best way to reduce humidity. Other ways to keep humidity low are using the exhaust fans in your bathroom and kitchen and limiting the number of houseplants you have. Use a dehumidifier for damp basements.

Try to keep your pets outside as much as possible.

But watch out for cleaning-product fumes! While cleaning your house is a must for eliminating allergens, be aware of the fact that certain housecleaning products contain chemical fumes that may bring on an asthma attack. Be especially careful when you buy and use new chemical cleaners.

Use caution in the great outdoors. Asthma triggers not only exist inside the house, they are outside as well. Air pollution and smog are terrible for asthma sufferers. Always carry your medication with you when you plan a long day outdoors. Stay indoors as much as possible when pollen and pollution are at their peak.

Avoid cigarette smoke like the plague. If your friends smoke, ask them politely to take their habit elsewhere. If you smoke, the best and only advice is to quit immediately. One cigarette can hinder your breathing and cause mucus to build up in your lungs. Always ask for nonsmoking sections in restaurants and on airplanes.

Figure out your food triggers and avoid them. Studies show that certain foods can bring on asthma attacks. In particular, seafood and some dairy products like milk and eggs have been linked to asthma flare-ups.

Eating foods with sulfites (food preservatives) and artificial coloring products can also trigger asthma. Manufacturers add sulfites to foods such as dried fruits and dehydrated potatoes to prevent discoloration. The Food and Drug Administration requires labels on foods containing large amounts of sulfites. Some foods that tend to have high sulfite levels are dried apricots, dried peaches, instant mashed potatoes, imported peppers, shrimp and hominy.

Cut back on salt. Although further studies need to be done, a high-salt diet may make asthma worse. Several studies show that this is especially true for men! In one 10-week study, men with asthma had to use a bronchodilator more often, exhaled less air, and wheezed more when researchers gave them a high-sodium tablet instead of a placebo.

Say no to alcohol. Substances in alcoholic drinks trigger asthma attacks in some people. People sensitive to sulfites can become short of breath after just one glass of wine.

Load up on cereals, dairy products, nuts and green vegetables. These foods contain magnesium - a mineral that can do wonders for your lungs. Eating magnesium-rich foods can prevent wheezing and reduce your chances of suffering an asthma attack. In one study, scientists exposed 2,600 people to a chemical known to irritate the lungs. The people with higher magnesium intakes were far less sensitive to that substance than those who consumed little magnesium.

How does magnesium help keep lungs and airways healthy? Researchers think the answer lies in the mineral's ability to relax smooth muscles in the lungs. In fact, one form of the mineral - magnesium sulfate - has been used by doctors to help open up the airways of asthma sufferers. Avoid eating too many processed foods. They tend to be very low in magnesium. The recommended daily allowance for magnesium is 350 mg for men and 300 mg for women.

Enjoy your morning cup of coffee. Caffeine has been found to reduce asthma attacks by widening the blood vessels in the lungs. During an asthma attack, caffeine can be particularly helpful as an emergency backup if you've forgotten your inhaler. Don't overdose on caffeine, but a can or two of cola or two cups of coffee can help. Now your horning coffee can serve the dual purpose of fighting asthma and giving you a jump-start on the day.

Chase away headaches with acetaminophen, not aspirin. Many people with asthma are sensitive to aspirin. Because aspirin is one of the most widely used drugs in the world, it is imperative that everyone with asthma be tested for aspirin-sensitivity. Doctors strongly recommend using acetaminophen in place of aspirin. Always ask your pharmacist about the possible aspirin content of any prescription or nonprescription medicine you take.

Take a cold-water bath. Cold-water baths, though they may not be the most comfortable, seem to ease asthma symptoms. Studies show remarkable improvements in wheezing and breathing after bathing in cold water for one minute or taking a 30-second cold shower every day. So if you can stand the chill, a cold shower a day can help keep the asthma attacks away!

Be careful with winter fires. Burning wood gives off tiny particles that can get into your lungs and cause shortness of breath. Some precautions: Don't let children with asthma sit close to the fireplace. Don't use chemicals, such as kerosene, to light the fire. Keep the chimney clean to prevent fumes. Air the room out after the fire, and dust and vacuum as soon as possible.

Protect your body from toxins. Cigarette smoke and other pollutants can be deadly for people with asthma. Vitamin C, the most important free-radical fighter in the lungs, helps protect your body from environmental pollutants. Make sure your diet is high in vitamin C. The recommended daily allowance is 60 mg, but most multivitamins contain much more than that.

Monitor your breathing with a peak flow meter. Most people with asthma have a mild case that they can control, but for some, asthma can be lethal. Some people with asthma can't tell when they're not getting enough oxygen until it's too late. If you have asthma, especially if you have trouble knowing when you are breathless, you need to use a peak flow meter every day. Peak flow meters measure how fast you blow air out of your lungs. They are portable and can alert you to the early signals of an asthma attack.

Although these changes may require some extra work on your part, the time and effort are definitely worth it. Asthma does not have to control your life. Instead of living with the chest pains, wheezing and coughing, you can fight asthma and win!


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