(Article originally appeared in Arizona City Independent Edition, October 12, 2005)
How’s your breathing lately? Yeah, mine too! We’re in the middle of “high cotton,” as people say back east, and we who are allergic will be feeling it until sometime after the harvest--when the dust settles, as people also say.
During 15 years in La Porte, Texas, we rode out several hurricanes and tropical storms, so I know it’s difficult to breathe in the low pressure of a violent weather event, but it wasn’t as bad for me then as it would be now. Though I've had chronic respiratory problems all my life, it didn’t turn into full-blown asthma until the mid-1990s after I’d been in Georgia for a few years. By then, the lovely plants that made the Peach State the most beautiful place I very nearly died in made it impossible for me to catch my breath during much of the spring and fall. In fact, my need to breathe easier was one of the reasons we finally moved to Arizona in the fall of 2000.
Still, for many long weeks in late spring and between August and October, it takes work for me to keep my respiratory passages clear, even here in the desert. The problem is all the agriculture that moves into high gear at these times of the year. Though I don’t get outside enough to see what’s going on in the fields from day to day, I get some hot reports from my husband and friends who do.
First comes crop-dusters spraying chemicals to kill bugs and help crops grow. Then buds and flowers bring pollen and some lint, then the harvest and tons more cotton lint, along with dust and other irritants attacking all the poor asthmatics like me. For months on end, we can’t seem to get any relief at all!
But we can treat the worst problems. Medications offer temporary relief, but I’m extremely sensitive to drugs, so I avoid them by managing my symptoms in other ways. I’ll share details with you here, but remember, I’m not a medical professional and this article is about congestion, not other respiratory problems. Before trying a treatment yourself, please discuss it with your doctor.
THE SYMPTOMS: The primary symptoms most of us have are redness and itching of the eyes, runny nose, sore throat, congestion in the bronchial tubes and sometimes even the lungs. Secondary symptoms, which can range from digestive problems to pain and exhaustion, can be caused by an allergy and can be aggravated by drugs used to treat the allergy, even in healthy people. That’s why it’s a good idea to try alternative treatments before you simply “pop” a pill.
THE TOOLS: My allergy-fighting arsenal can contain up to four ingredients: artificial tears, nasal saline spray, breathing mask, and deep-breathing exercise. The best thing about all these tools is that they have no negative side effects.
EYES: Artificial tears isn’t the same as eyedrops that treat redness, and with several formulas available, your doctor or pharmacist should help you choose the best product for your needs. I first try increasing my tears naturally with blinking and biofeedback. I close my eyes and concentrate on feeling the blood flowing through my eyes for several seconds. When I open them, they’re usually less irritated than before. Some days I have to do this often, but at least this treatment has no harmful side effects.
NOSE: Nasal saline solution is simpler. You can buy the product in a pharmacy or find instructions for making it on the internet. Unlike medical nasal sprays, saline solution contains no chemicals and isn’t habit-forming. It’s used to moisten nasal passages and clear them of irritating substances, so it helps you breathe a little easier.
BREATHING MASKS: Breathing masks are simple too, but some people don’t like them. They may be a pain, but they’re the best tools in my arsenal for preventing, or at least minimizing, nasal congestion. When I get a runny nose from allergies, I use the mask for an hour or two, then take it off to give myself a break from that closed-in feeling. I made myself several surgical-style masks from scrap material, but Jim uses a bandana, which is more macho!
DEEP BREATHING: My deep-breathing technique takes time and effort, but since it’s the reason I haven't used asthma medication in over a decade, it’s certainly worth the trouble. I use the technique two different ways. First, I try to take several really deep breaths in a row almost every day. It helps clear the breathing passages and bring extra oxygen to the brain. This technique comes in handy when my chest is congested from allergies, and it’s so much safer than an inhaler.
First I exhale through my mouth as much air as I can, pushing slowly and steadily from my lower lungs way down in my abdomen. The instinct is to inhale first, but by emptying breathing passages first, when I start to inhale, I have the same advantage as a hurdler getting a running start in order to jump higher. Then I breathe in through my nose, as slowly and steadily as I exhaled, pulling air down to my stomach rather than just my chest. After pulling in all the air I can, I hold it for a few seconds before exhaling again. When I’ve blown all the air out again, I wait a few seconds before starting the process over again. I do this as long as I have to until I feel my lungs are clear.
When I first used this technique in Georgia, my asthma was so bad and my breathing tubes so congested that I had a phone ready with 911 programmed in, just in case. Breathing without my inhaler was the hardest work I’ve ever done; it felt like a great weight was crushing my chest from the inside.
The first few times I tried this, it felt like it took almost a minute to pull in each breath. It was almost as hard and took almost as long to slowly blow out each breath, and the entire process of getting things clear enough for me to breathe normally again took more than half an hour in those early days. Now I can clear things out with fewer than a dozen deep breaths which take barely minutes now.
After a few really deep abdominal breaths, I often feel some mucus loosening. When I have a lot of congestion, I can feel it slowly rise in my breathing tubes. The effect was much more pronounced in those early days in Georgia, when my asthma was so bad. After more than ten years of deep breathing and with clearer air in Arizona, my breathing problems are much less severe than they used to be.
Before I started this technique in Georgia, at the height of the pollen season I had to use an inhaler to treat up to four asthma attacks a day. With the severity and number of attacks increasing and the drug causing side effects which doctors wanted to treat with more drugs, I decided to find a safer way to treat the problem.
In the 1960s, asthmatic children used deep breathing to lessen their dependence on medication, but in the mid-‘90s, no doctor would discuss the technique because of insurance restrictions, so I had to figure it out myself based on what I’d heard about it years earlier. From the first time I tried it, I never had to use my inhaler again and my attacks quickly decreased to a few times a week, even though the pollen season still had a few weeks to go.
For several years, I kept a fresh inhaler and my 911 phone on hand during attacks, but I’ve never had to use either of these fallback tools. Now I don’t even bother getting a new inhaler each year. As I get older, the time could come when I’ll need it again, but I’ll worry about that when it happens--if it happens!
It’s nice to know that with my handy little arsenal, old “king” cotton might try to get me, along with those other bad things that float through the air at certain times of the year, but I’m ready for them. As a certain “cowboy” once said, “Bring ‘em on!”