Asthma can strike without warning and leave you breathless for days or even weeks on end. Iliyas Ong finds out how Western, TCM and homeopathic physicians treat this chronic disease.
There is no cure for asthma. The respiratory disease affects about 235 million people in the world, making it a fairly common condition. So it’s fortunate that asthma isn’t especially deadly- about 100 patients here die from it annually- although its symptoms are debilitating enough to send thousands of asthmatics in Singapore to the doctor each month. When an asthma attack occurs, the muscles surrounding the airways in the lungs tighten, limiting airflow. The lining of these airways also becomes inflamed. This forces cells to produce more mucus, which further clogs the air passages and restricts breathing. Depending on the patient, asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe, and tend to include wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
Prevention is Crucial
With no cure, all that patients can realistically do is manage their asthma well before and during an attack. A variety of triggers can lead to an attack, from catching a cold to overexerting yourself on the jogging track, so sufferers need to pay attention to what usually sparks it.
And to make matters worse, Dr Vijo Poulouse, a senior consultant for respiratory medicine at Changi General Hospital, says, “There are no really new and effective drugs in the recent past.”
According to the doctor, there are two types of asthma drugs patients are currently prescribed: rescue medications such as Ventolin, which are used to treat an acute attack, and preventers or controllers such as Seretide, which prevent an attack from happening. “For an asthma physician, what is more important is to ensure that the patients take their preventer medications regularly and, hopefully, avoid an acute attack from happening,” he explains.
Because of the fickle nature of the affliction—it can lie dormant until a surprise attack—many patients have dangerous misconceptions about how they should control it. These include not understanding the importance of preventers and an over-reliance on rescue medications, both of which may lead to death.
“Taking the preventer medications regularly is crucial for asthma control,” Dr Poulose insists. “Also, getting to the hospital when rescue medications are not helping is paramount. Several patients die all over the world from ‘fatal’ asthma, and most of the fatalities occur at home.”
Cough It Up
So unpredictable and threatening are asthma attacks that even Zhou Yan, a senior physician with the Eu Yan Sang Premier TCM Centre in Camden Medical Centre, advises patients to have their controller inhalers with them at all times. This would refer to the famous blue Ventolin inhalers in most case, “When you get an attack, you should completely stop exercising for a short period of time.” She advises.
Physician Zhou explains that asthma is caused by two simultaneous factors: a build- up of phlegm in the lungs and the shrinking of the trachea. Weather changes, pollen and dust mites could cause the trachea to shrink. “Someone with a sensitive nose and airway who coughs day and night—a chronic cough that lasts three to four weeks and is not affected by antibiotics—should suspect asthma,” she reveals.
Patients should note that a persistent cough that comes only at night, often neglected and undiagnosed, could also be a form of asthma, advises the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) expert. “One’s trachea shrinks when the temperature drops, such as during the night or in the early morning,” she explains. Although she concedes that asthma is a “difficult” condition to treat, Physician Zhou assures that it can be “effectively controlled.” One way patients can do so would be to include in their diets certain Chinese herbs that help reduce phlegm in the lungs.
Asthma: Cause & Control
Physician Zhou says asthma can be triggered via four main stimuli:
|External||atmospheric changes, allergens|
|Physical||fatigue, lack of rest|
|Diet||raw food, cold food, oily fried food, stimulating food such as seafood|
Physician Zhou suggests herbs such as Astragalus Root, Chinese Yam, Lily Bulb, Chinese Wolfberry and Red Dates. These will strengthen the body to prevent the next attack, while also bringing down the amount of mucus in the lungs.
Food allergens are not common asthma triggers, unlike these:
|External||environment pollutants such as haze, cigarette smoke, pet dander, plant pollen, dust mites|
|Physical||exercise, viral infection|
“For acute attacks, the mainstay of treatment are bronchodilators such as Ventolin, which dilate the constructed airways, and systemic steroids, which are steroids given in oral or intravenous forms,” reveals Dr Poulose. He remarked, however, that Prednisolone is reserved for “severe asthmatics who cannot be controlled by conventional therapy,” as it contains enough steroids to produce undesired side effects.
Asthma triggers are largely the same as in TCM and Western medicine, but with several additions:
|Emotional||laughter may trigger an attack in weak individuals|
|Physical||repeated upper respiratory tract infections, gastroesophageal reflux, hormonal changes during menstruation or pregnancy|
Homeopathy has many remedies that palliate all the different asthma symptoms. If you suffer from severe wheezing spells, homeopathic doctors recommend Carbo Vegetabilis (a diluted form of vegetable charcoal). For those who experience violent coughing that results in retching, there’s Ipecac (a plant-based syrup). And if your symptoms get worse at night, try Kali Carbonicum (potassium carbonate). Remember, it’s best to seek advice from a homeopathic professional for specific prescriptions and dosages.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. This article first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.5.