BETHESDA, Md. (NNS) -- Health care providers at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) are educating patients and staff about the symptoms of asthma, a chronic and highly manageable disease, during its peak season.
"It's a national issue," said Tonya Alston, assistant department head of Pulmonary Medicine at NNMC.
Asthma affects an estimated 23 million people in the U.S., including seven million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). It's a disease in which an individual's lungs are sensitive and can become inflamed after exposed to an allergen (also referred to as a "trigger"). The airways become blocked, thus producing mucus and making it difficult for the person to breathe.
"Our main goal here is to help patients and their families see the benefits [of managing symptoms], teaching them what they need to know and helping them learn what their triggers are," Alston said.
Patients at NNMC are provided an Asthma Action Plan, which allows them to be aware of their symptoms and NNMC ensures patients are using their inhaler and spacer correctly, said Shannon Coles, a respiratory therapist and asthma educator for NNMC's Pulmonary Medicine. The inhaler provides medication and the spacer is attached to help disperse the medication evenly through the lungs.
"Every time they come in, I want to see that they know how to use them," she said.
Asthmatics are also taught how to use their Peak Flow Meter, which goes hand-in-hand with the patient's Asthma Action Plan. Patients blow into the meter to measure their lung capacity, determining whether they are in their "green," "yellow" or "red" zone.
"If you can't blow but 50 percent [of your lung capacity], then that means you're having a dangerous asthma attack," she said.
"With the action plan, an asthmatic can be aware of what zone they're in on any given day," Coles said, "and [that they] know how to treat symptoms within each zone. A patient in the green zone, for example, is breathing normally and not coughing or wheezing. At this stage, the individual should continue taking their controlled medications."
In the yellow zone, a patient's symptoms are worsening. They should make sure to avoid their identified triggers and should take their additionally prescribed medication to help control their symptoms, said Sybil Smith, a pulmonary nurse who works in Pulmonary Medicine at NNMC. She added that those who are in their yellow zone for two days should see their doctor immediately, rather than waiting until they're in the red zone, in which case they should go to the emergency room.
"It's a chronic disease," Smith said. "Your Asthma Action Plan is critical to your asthma management ... it's important to follow these steps."
Asthma is deadly - approximately 5,000 people die from asthma each year - but asthmatics shouldn't have to suffer, Alston said. She wants people to know that they can still live a healthy, normal life when they manage their symptoms and follow their prescribed treatment plan.
The plan is designed to identify asthmatic's triggers, such as smoke, food, weather, mold, exercise or stress, Coles said.
"Everyone's different," she said. "There are thousands of triggers."
Susan Johnson, a patient at NNMC, said pollen and seasonal allergies often trigger her asthma. Johnson has been an asthmatic for the last 12 years and has found the best way to cope with the disease is by managing her symptoms.
"I do feel like its pretty much under control," Johnson said. "When I do feel like I'm [experiencing symptoms], I sit down, relax and I'll use my inhaler."
It's important not to panic when asthma symptoms arise, she added, because the stress can make it worse.
"You have to be aware [of your symptoms] and just relax," she said.
"[Asthma] is manageable, but you have to stay on it and manage it. You can't just ignore it and expect it to be okay," Coles said.
Every Tuesday this month - Asthma Awareness Month - NNMC's Pulmonary Medicine will have an informational booth set up in Building 9 from 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. to help raise awareness about the severity of asthma and how important it is to control symptoms.
For more information, call Pulmonary Medicine at 301-295-4191.
For more news from National Naval Medical Center, visit www.navy.mil/local/nnmc/.