Asthma is a chronic lung condition that causes coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Approximately 26 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with asthma. While asthma has a higher prevalence in boys before puberty, women are more likely to have asthma as adults. This means that there are many women with asthma.
“People feel like they’ve got someone squeezing their chest, like an elephant is sitting on them, where they can’t get air in, they can’t get air out,” said Patti Burton, registered respiratory therapist. This is what an asthma attack can feel like.
May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, and May 14-20 marks National Women’s Health Week. In honor of these important issues, we’re going to take a look at women’s unique predisposition for adult asthma.
- An asthma attack is something that happens when an irritant bothers a person’s lungs. Typically, asthma attacks are brought on by pollen, smoke or extreme weather conditions.
- While asthma may not seem like a serious condition to some, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) reports that approximately ten people a day die from asthma.
- Asthma has no cure. It is treated using long-term and quick-relief medications. Long-term medications work to reduce airway inflammation and prevent flare-ups. Quick-relief medications are used to quickly reduce symptoms when someone is having a flare-up.
- Asthma is generally hereditary.
Women and Asthma
In fact, women with asthma can be affected by pregnancy, their menstrual cycles and menopause. Women with allergies may also be at a higher risk for asthma, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Changes in estrogen levels can lead to an inflammatory response, predisposing women to asthma flare-ups. Additionally, asthma flare-ups can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women and their babies, since oxygen is reduced in both during an asthma attack.
The good news is that, because we know the culprit, changing estrogen levels, we also know how to manage symptoms. According to Christina Dimitropoulou-Catravas, PhD, assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgie, stabilizing estrogen levels in the body can help better control inflammation and asthma.
“With any medication, it’s a balance of risk vs. benefit,” said Dimitropoulou-Catravas. “Estrogen replacement therapy, which can bring estrogen levels into balance, has been associated with an increased cardiovascular risk, such as a higher risk of stroke. But if someone has severe asthma and it can be linked to low levels of estrogen, replacement therapy might be an answer.”
What to Be Aware of for Women with Asthma
Most women who have asthma are well aware of what causes flare-ups. However, women should also be aware of the impact of their menstrual cycles as well. Pregnancy and menopause will also affect asthma flare-ups. Shifting hormone levels can impact a person’s airways.
Menstrual Cycles: “Most hospitalizations for asthma in women occur around the peri-menstrual stage of the menstrual cycle — right before a woman’s period begins,” said Maeve O’Connor, M.D., an allergist and immunologist in Charlotte, N.C. “This is when estrogen levels drop down to almost zero.”
A woman’s hormone levels fluctuate a great deal during her menstrual cycle, and low estrogen levels place women at a particularly high risk for experiencing symptoms.
To avoid flare-ups for women with asthma, women should avoid known allergens right before their menstrual cycle is about to begin, which is when estrogen levels are typically the lowest. Women with irregular menstrual cycles can use a peak flow meter to measure their ability to push air out of the lungs. A decrease in flow meter results might be a good indicator that the menstrual cycle is about to start, allowing women to be more diligent of avoiding triggers.
Pregnancy: Asthma symptoms get worse in some pregnant women, but not others. Pregnant women with asthma should pay particular care to staying away from irritants that might induce flare-ups. If kept under control during pregnancy, asthma does not increase the risk of maternal or infant complications. Taking maintenance medication is key for keeping asthma under control during pregnancy.
Menopause: A woman’s estrogen levels will move from one extreme to the next during menopause, with most extremes occurring on the low side. Hormone therapy, which keeps estrogen levels more constant, can be an effective way of reducing asthma flare-ups in women who are experiencing menopause.
What Can Women with Asthma Do?
Women who go through menopause can actually develop asthma for the first time in their lives because of the fluctuations in hormones. For women experiencing menopause, it’s important to watch out for asthma symptoms such as wheezing and coughing.
Regardless of their current situation, all women with asthma should take maintenance medication under the direction of their primary care doctors to help prevent symptoms and flare-ups. It is better to practice preventative care than to treat symptoms after they have started. While asthma is not a curable condition, it is treatable. The key is understanding irritants and symptoms and taking proper precautions to manage flare-ups.
The Lung Health Institute specializes in treating people with chronic pulmonary conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pulmonary fibrosis. If you or a loved one suffers from a lung condition, the Lung Health Institute may be able to help. Contact us to learn more.