I felt this burning mass in my chest
MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:After a series of lung tests, the diagnosis was mild asthma, writes CLARE DOWLING
IT CAME OUT OF the blue in 2008 when I was 40, following a viral chest infection I picked up from my son. It did not start off as typical asthma; I had no real shortness of breath, no phlegmy cough. My symptoms were a chronic “burn” in my chest and chronic tiredness. I had repeated bouts of bronchitis.
To have something so suddenly and inexplicably happen to me was a real shock. I was on a deadline for a book, which I missed wildly. I was tested for a series of lung issues over six months and it was a bit of a surprise to be finally diagnosed with “mild asthma”. It didn’t feel anything like “mild asthma”.
I was prescribed the usual inhalers and a leukotriene inhibitor. While it stopped the bronchitis attacks, I was still having symptoms 24 hours a day. I would be flat out on the couch, completely aware of my lungs – you would not give normal lungs a thought, but I was so aware of this burning mass in my chest.
My doctor was very patient and I had a further full investigation. The regular asthmatic medicines did not seem to have any significant impact apart from keeping the bronchitis away. At that point, I knew I had to investigate something else. The internet is a blessing and a curse, as it sent me down all sorts of roads.
The Buteyko method, which is about controlling your breath and has worked wonders for some asthmatics, was one of the first things I tried. It is hard work, and I stuck at it for six months, but it did not do anything for me.
Then I tried acupuncture and herbs for three or four months and those did nothing for me either. I was really impatient to feel better and that is always a danger when you are approaching alternative medicine. It takes far longer than conventional medicine and I was in a big, big hurry.
I moved on to the raw food diet and six weeks was as long as I could stick it. I was eating so much food – anything raw and uncooked, essentially vegetables, seeds and nuts – but I was never full.
I was completely miserable. Everybody else would be tucking into bowls of spaghetti Bolognese and I would be there with cold puréed pea soup.
I was reading asthma blogs but felt my experience was different to others. I believed my problem lay in an immune imbalance, which I suppose is at the root of asthma.
A lot of asthmatics talked about the water diet, which I did for a number of weeks. It was eight glasses a day, each one taken with a quarter of a teaspoon of salt to help retain the water. The biggest change was the number of times I got up to go to the toilet! It did nothing for my asthma.
Then I tried a supplements regime. I went on a high dose of vitamin D, and within a week the edge had been taken off my asthma, but I was nowhere near curing it.
I also started taking fish oil. At least there is scientific research behind fish oil and vitamin D and that is important when you are desperate.
I also tried turmeric, grape-seed extract, magnesium and others. At one point I was spending €100 a week on quality supplements.
Even though I have been a vegetarian for 20 years, I had a brief flirtation with the Paleo diet, because it was recommended by an asthmatic who seemed to have symptoms like mine. It is a hunter-gatherer diet based on meat, fish, fruit, berries and nuts, and I made just over a week with that.
My lowest point was when I strongly considered buying bovine colostrum off the internet. The first milk from cows after they have calved is supposed to have immunomodulatory benefits (that is, positive effects on the immune system).
During all this I noticed that whenever I went away from Ireland, my asthma would clear. This apparently is quite common. I was seriously considering moving abroad, but I knew that after a while I would become sensitive to new allergens and have to move again.
My significant improvement in health came about by sheer fluke. I got an adult acne condition and I went to the GP who prescribed antibiotics. Over a week, my asthma suddenly got significantly better and I pinned it down to the antibiotics, which have an anti-inflammatory effect.
My pulmonologist was open to trying something new and last September he agreed to give it a go. I have cut down my antibiotic use to a very low dose and am still very well. I am also on conventional asthma medications and I suppose it is the combination.
I would describe my condition now as “mild asthma”, which was my original diagnosis. I have recently done a 10k run, which I could never have dreamt of six months ago, and I am doing Irish dancing once a week. I am a transformed person.
In conversation with Sheila Wayman
ADULT-ONSET ASTHMA: WHAT IS IT?
Asthma is most commonly a childhood condition, but when diagnosed for the first time in people aged over 20, it is called adult-onset asthma. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness, cough and wheezing.
It is not known what causes asthma, but women are more likely than men to develop it, possibly due to hormonal changes. Obesity is also believed to be a risk factor.
At least 30 per cent of adult asthma cases are triggered by allergies and many adults first experience asthma after a bad cold or flu. The two main types of medication used to control asthma are bronchodilators and anti-inflammatories.