Outdoors/Adventure

Asthma can make life a wheeze-fest, but knowing the triggers can change everything

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: May 23
  • Published May 23

The radio stories I find most difficult to listen to are those that feature people having difficulty breathing. I cried when I listened to a piece about a man suffering from advanced stages of black lung disease in Appalachia coal country.

Recently, a segment about athletes training for altitude by wearing a mask that deprives them of oxygen made me gasp aloud after hearing the reporter gulp in air after wearing the mask during a short walk.

I have exercise-induced asthma that used to be everything-induced asthma, so that feeling of having difficulty breathing is visceral.

But thinking about my asthma also makes me incredibly grateful. Once I could barely move at all without going into a wheeze-fest. I had no physical fitness. Gradually I've gotten to the point where I can run marathons. Since that's possible, surely the rest of life is, too.

Strategies for dealing with asthma differ for everyone, depending on triggers and circumstances. Mine have become honed over time, and with vast improvements I've been able to up my exercise game.

When I was young I took a daily cocktail of asthma medications, including the poisonous Prednisone. It seemed like I was always weaning myself off Prednisone until the next attack prompted my doctors to spike up the dose once again. I had preventive and rescue inhalers and multiple home nebulizers (including a battery-operated one for traveling).

That saline taste in the back of my throat coupled with a racing heart and gurgling lungs as they started to open was normal. I preferred oxygen masks to the nostril attachment — I didn't like how the cold air rushing directly into my nose felt.

I found myself liking the hospital. In the hospital, I didn't have to worry about the chaos of an attack followed by treatment. Life was offered in doses. I only got better in the hospital, whereas in any other uncontrolled part of my world, I never knew when I would begin to have trouble breathing or how far it would escalate. So in a way, I relished those weeks that I spent getting treatments every few hours in a sterile room that smelled like plastic.

I suppose, reflecting on it now, my life has become the exact chaos that I used to fear. It's a good thing.

Still, my little red inhaler goes with me everywhere. I check for it before I travel. I've learned the hard way to have several caches of inhalers just in case one goes missing. One is in my car, one is in my suitcase, one is in my purse. Before I exercise, every single time, I take two puffs of the inhaler. I don't like my reliance on it, but at the same time it sure beats where I was 20 years ago.

The extreme version of my asthma that continually landed me in the hospital went away virtually overnight when I switched schools at age 13.

Yep, my school in Massachusetts was based on an Arizona building design that called for central air. Our building didn't actually have air conditioning, though, so in practice it just meant we had no air circulation in a building with windows that only cracked open.

When I switched schools, I could suddenly breathe. It was wonderful. It was terrifying. I had no personality without my asthma to define me.

Over time, it seems like my personality developed all right, and right alongside it came a new normal and a new way of managing my asthma. I learned what to avoid.

To this day, dogs and cats (and any other furry beast) shut down my lungs. I can be outside with animals, no problem. But spending any length of time in enclosed spaces with animals — cars, homes, offices — causes me to have difficulty breathing.

I also have a hard time being in enclosed spaces where animals usually live, even if the dog or cat itself isn't in the room. I remember a doctor telling me that it takes six months after an animal has lived in a home for the air to fully clean out, and longer if it's fully carpeted.

So, depending on the pet-owning friend's house, I can stay for dinner for anywhere from 45 minutes or a couple of hours before my lungs signal that it's time to leave. If I stay too long, I have an asthma hangover the following day where I still find it hard to breathe.

When I get home from someone's house with animals, I immediately strip my clothing and shower — and I've found that it really helps me recover faster.

Is it a bummer to have to avoid dogs and cats to this extent, especially in Alaska, which is (understandably) such a dog-friendly state? Sure. I often wish I could stay longer in people's homes and I feel rude having to leave. I can't visit offices with dog-friendly policies, much less work there.

But what I always come back to is that I now know exactly what triggers my asthma. I can avoid or manage these triggers. That's a lot more information than what I had when I was young.

My doctor when I was growing up described the triggers that lead to an asthma attack as a cup of water. Up to a certain point, the human body can manage triggers. But when there are too many, the cup overflows. When I didn't know what was leading to my asthma attacks, any little thing could set me over the edge into an attack. Now that the places I sleep and visit every day are mostly dog-free, it's harder to set off an attack.

For me, asthma held me back for many years but also taught me a lot. Asthma made me more empathetic to the struggles of others and more patient with my own. Instead of feeling discouraged or daunted by the many things available in life, I'm inspired by what is possible and how far I've been able to go. Oddly, this is thanks to that struggle I had early on to simply breathe.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.