I was racking my brain trying to come up with an appropriate title for this post and finally settled on this one. I think it works, because in many cases living with and managing asthma can be a full time, around the clock, job. Kind of ironic when you consider all the people who are unable to work because of asthma. Having said that, Im subtracting an hour for good breathing, which is about the amount of time I spend daily on not having to think about my breathing.
This latest revelation came to me, not while I was taking a neb treatment to quell my almost constant breathlessness, but while I was on the toilet wincing through painful cramps and diarrhea brought on by the 500mg of Azithrotmycin I take 3 times a week to control my asthma. Living with severe asthma is more than just coping with breathing issues, it’s also about dealing with the side effects of multiple medications. And while for the most part, the side effects of some of these drugs are tolerable and maybe even predictable, they are nevertheless annoyingly uncomfortable, and have a definite impact ones quality of life.
Take for example the long term antibiotic Im currently on. 3 days a week I take 500mg of Azithromycin, and just like clockwork on those days I develop GI cramps which can last for several hours. This means that on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday mornings( the 3 days I chose), Im pretty much confined to the house till noon. This means, no morning appts of any kind, no morning walks, no morning anything if away from the house. If it’s essential that I be somewhere early on those days, I have to skip that particular dose all together. And yes, Ive experimented with the taking the medication at different times of the day, but very early morning (usually at 4 am because I can’t sleep), is the best option for me.
But it’s not just the inconvenience of trying to plan your day around diarrhea causing medications, there other more common asthma treatments that eat away at the day as well. Using a few inhalers a couple times a day is no big deal and has virtually no side effects, but having to take neb treatments around the clock for constant shortness of breath, is a huge time killer. On average I take 6 nebulizer treatments per day. If Im sick or flaring you can double that. At 10 minutes a pop, that’s an hour or more per day literally spent on sucking medications into my lungs.
Here’s one that almost every asthmatic can relate to, the side effects of our favorite drug, aka prednisone. Try adding up all the time spent on identifying, treating or managing stuff like steroid induced diabetes, muscle, bone, skin and eye problems, etc. Oddly enough, at least for me, steroids are actually at the bottom of my list in terms of both side effects and time wasted. As I’ve written about in previous posts, I made a conscience decision early on in my disease progression that I would rather be chronically short of breath than to deal with the horrific physical and emotional side effects brought on by high doses steroids. Even though my daily prednisone sweet spot in terms of dyspnea control is around 25-30 mg, Ive been able to live fairly comfortably on only 5-10 mg per day, plus inhaled fluticasone. The most annoying and painful symptom I get from my maintenance dose are muscle cramps. I get them everywhere, especially in my hands, chin and throat muscles. Yes, my throat actually cramps up. not fun. Again, it’s my decision to be under dosed in the steroid department, but I’ve seen this drug literally destroy lives. It can definitely save them in the short term, but you pay for it in the long term.
Ah, but the hardcore drugs are just part of picture, how about the non-medication side effects of this disease? We often forget that the disease itself causes side effects, the biggest one of course being death. But aside from that, there’s stress, anxiety, pain and fatigue that often develops. I don’t care how strong or stoic a person you are, if you can’t breath, you’re gonna be on edge at some point.
As far as actual pain, the most obvious might be chest and rib muscle pain from coughing a lung out. But for those of us who rarely cough, there’s also pain that can develop from the simple act of breathing itself. If your lung function is chronically diminished and/or your airways swell or tighten up a lot, the work required by your diaphragm and accessory muscles to get air in and out of your lungs increases dramatically. The muscles you normally use to breath with become less effective, which causes other muscle groups to become overworked. In my case, I subconsciously elevate and hunch my shoulder muscles when Im tight. That, plus poor posture, makes my shoulders and back muscles hurt a lot. This often affects my sleep, which leads to even more fatigue.
Finally, there’s the time and suffering consumed by asthma exacerbation themselves, hospitalizations and post recovery periods. Last year alone I spent 54 days in the hospital and appx 150 days recovering from those hospitalizations. Throw in frequent and often multiple doctor appts, ongoing lab tests, VAP maintenance and visits to the pharmacy, and you’re officially working full time for your disease.
Thankfully, some of these not so pleasant treatment medications can, and do, yield some positive benefits. Since beginning on long term macrolide therapy, Ive had fewer flares that required extended hospitalizations. So to me dealing with the pesky GI side effects is totally worth it. Id much rather suffer from nausea and cramps a few days every week, then spend another minute on a ventilator. Likewise, in keeping my prednisone intake to a bare minimum (at the expense of not being symptom free), Ive had fewer steroid related complications over the years than most people, which means I can exercise more, which in turn help counters some of the other negative aspects of the disease.
So there you go, just a few examples of how much of this particular asthmatic’s life is consumed by the burden of the disease and the modalities required to stay afloat. Everyone’s asthma and the way they deal with it is different, so its really a matter of adapting and what a person is willing and able to put up with in order to live a halfway normal life.
One thing that I think we can all agree on, is that living with severe debilitating asthma is not for wimps. It’s a full time job that has lots of ups and downs, but mostly downs. And just like a real job, you do it because you have to to survive.