By Alicia Schwartz, MSN-Ed, PCC, CCM, RN of VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans
As summer begins, irritants like pollen and smoke are more likely to cause asthma attacks. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, asthma is a chronic disease that affects about 8% of Americans, and is characterized by inflammation of the airways and difficulty breathing.
Although many individuals outgrow symptoms during childhood, the disease still affects older people – the U.S. Department of Health estimates that more than two million Americans over the age of 65 have asthma, and World Asthma Organization studies indicate that the burden of the disease is more significant in the elderly, with incidence rapidly increasing and likely to double by 2030.
Asthma can be particularly dangerous for aging adults who may be more prone to increased risk for infections and more susceptible to respiratory failure; it tends to be exacerbated by allergies, a common occurrence when pollen counts begin to skyrocket.
As a Registered Nurse Care and Care Coordinator with VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, I’ve noticed that seniors can really be caught off guard during allergy season, and are often surprised to learn that they can develop asthma at an older age. For a safe and healthy summer, speak to your health care provider if you experience unusual wheezing, persistent cough or difficulty breathing. Newly diagnosed individuals may think that an asthma attack only involves wheezing, but a persistent cough could be a sign of an asthma attack as well. Follow these tips to help prevent asthma attacks and eliminate allergens for your loved ones:
Keep a Clean Home:
- Go green. Household cleaners can have toxic fumes that can trigger wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Look for environmentally-friendly cleaning products with non-toxic ingredients. Baking soda is a good cleaning agent and does not have scent.
- Make your home fur-free. Keep pets with fur or hair out of the home. If you can’t let go of a family pet, make sure to keep it out of any bedrooms to ensure clean air while sleeping.
- Keep food in the kitchen. Food kept in open places such as a living room or bedroom can attract roaches. Make sure to inform your landlord if you see evidence of rodents or roaches—roach waste is an allergen and can irritate lungs—be sure to do a thorough cleaning after using an extermination service. Inspect your home for mold especially in damp basement storage areas, under the kitchen sink, and in the bathroom.
Keep the Air Clean:
- Beware of scents. Household air pollution that worsens asthma symptoms can come from items such as incense, air fresheners, and fresh paint. Heavy fragrances like perfume or scented creams can make symptoms worse. Remember to be careful at beauty salons or nail salons as they use chemicals that can affect your breathing. Even a trip to the podiatrist could involve fumes that might trigger an asthma attack.
- Air out your home. Open the windows after cleaning with chemicals, especially with bleach. The harsh smell and toxic fumes can irritate sensitive airways. Bleach can be diluted with water to minimize fumes and remember to never mix cleaners together; combinations may cause dangerous toxic fumes, which could trigger an asthma attack—or worse.
- Be smoke-free. Households with asthmatic family members should be “no smoking” zones. Secondhand cigarette smoke can trigger bronchial spasms and result in severe asthma attacks.
- Turn on the A/C. Use air conditioners when possible, and avoid humidifiers. Pollen, bacteria and mold thrive in warm, humid air, and are known to cause respiratory infections. Don’t forget to clean and/or change air conditioner filters so they don’t bring allergens back into the home.
- Get vaccinated. Getting the flu is something we all try to avoid, but a bout of summer flu can have serious consequences for the elderly, especially those with asthma. As we age, our immune systems weaken and something as small as the flu can lead to pneumonia. To reduce the risk of lung infections, asthmatic adults should get the flu shot every year.
- Wash up. Frequent hand washing by all members of a household can lessen the risk of spreading pathogens. Make an effort to remind your loved ones to maintain good hygiene and healthy habits—and be sure you’re washing your hands too.
- Know your allergens. Knowing what you are allergic to can help you steer clear of allergens that personally affect you. Some individuals are allergic to pollen while others have a problem with grass. On days that pollen is high, try to avoid outdoor activities.
- Have your doctor or a nurse observe you while you use an inhaler. An inhaler requires coordination between intake of breath and pumping the inhaler—it can take some getting used to. This can be a challenge for people with arthritis or anyone who has not received proper instruction. Doctors and nurses can teach correct inhaler usage, and if warranted, may order a spacer to help ensure that the medication is inhaled correctly.
- Always carry your inhaler if you are asthmatic. It is important to remember to keep your inhaler with you at all times, and accessible in case of emergency. It is your first defense in case of an asthma attack, and could even be lifesaving in a severe situation or a delay in medical assistance.
To learn more about health plans that help elder New Yorkers live more comfortably, safely, and independently in their own homes, visit www.VNSNYCHOICE.org or call 1-855-AT CHOICE (1-855-282-4642).