Saturday 10 May 2008

Flying & Asthma

The Flying Trilobite already receives a lot of pageviews due to a steady stream of people searching about being an asthmatic and flying (in an airplane, I presume). I thought it may be somewhat useful for me to therefore pen a post on the subject. The reason so many asthma-sufferers find this blog, I believe is because of the post I did of a drawing called, Asthma Incubus back in May of 2007.

If you are reading this blog for the first time, then welcome! Drop in for the asthma, stay for some paintings inspired by the awe of modern science. I am an artist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Please don't be frightened by the atheism. With atheism comes a healthy dose of skepticism, which you will need if you are suffering from asthma and don't know where to turn next. And anyway, the way I see it, when it comes to asthma relief, it just means instead of thanking god(s), I thank the fine scientists, pharmacists and chemists that have helped save more lives than prayer ever has.

Without skepticism someone may try to wave their hands over you or ask you to carry a small doll to cure your asthma, and while both could be entertaining, you and I both know it's hard to laugh when your lungs feel like they weigh 200 pounds and are made out of bags of rusty harmonicas.

So to begin: a caveat, a warning, a caution. I am an artist, not a medical respirologist. If you are looking for relief from your wheezy lungs, I strongly, mightily urge you to seek out a "Western" medically-trained respirologist and asthma clinic that keeps up on the latest advances in drugs to ease your lungs back into contributing members of your chest cavity. All I will share in this blog are anecdotes, individual stories about asthma, which is not how you should make a diagnosis! Medicines and remedies using double-blind, empirical and statistical trials are the ones to trust. Your respirologist will know which ones. I would also suggest checking out The Asthma Society of Canada for some up-to-date "'evidence-based', market-tested, " information on a regular basis.

Also to begin: some reassurance. I am a skeptic, and I will not try to sell you on the idea of water-pills, drinking urine, homeopathy, acupuncture, taking something just because it is "all-natural", or rearranging mythical chakras. If people seriously think they are helping you with this advice, I would strongly advise you to laugh, ask them to explain further, laugh some more, and do nothing they tell you to treat your asthma. If you are unsure of whether something someone suggests is pure nonsense or not, look for information that has piles of trustworthy studies behind it. To get you started, check out The Skeptic's Dictionary, particularly under "Alternative Medicine".

Oh, and get your children vaccinated too. It doesn't cause asthma, and will save their lives.

So, flying with asthma.

I have flown a number of times in my life so far, probably about 8 trips there and back again. As I said, I live in Toronto, and I have flown as far away as Aruba and Calgary, some 6 or 7 hours at a stretch. I have taken numerous shorter flights from Toronto to Montreal on a variety of airlines; Air Canada, Westjet and Porter, small planes and large ones.

My asthma has been diagnosed as "brittle", though that seemed to be a mistake; I have never fallen unconscious, even in my worst heart-pounding, suffocating moments. The most recent diagnosis was "moderate persistent asthma".

I haven't had any trouble flying with asthma. Whew! I know, all this preamble to find out you should be okay! Modern planes are pressurised so the air will not be thin as you fly up to 35'000 feet. A smaller plane, you may feel light-headed I guess. I have hiked in the Blue Mountains of Virginia before up to 4'000 feet, and I could still breathe and carry a 60 pound backpack.

Flying in a plane is exciting, and I am not jaded by the experience yet. So, sometimes I will need to take a puffer during the duration of the flight, but ask your doctor, or use your own experiences to see if this is necessary. For myself, I do not experience any sudden tightening of the chest, and I suspect I may take it in those moments larger as a psychological comfort. Perhaps the next time I fly I'll skip it if I can and see how it goes.

Most puffers are pressurised canisters, and there seem to be no negative effects on these in a plane. They do not explode or leak. Again, a pressurised cabin would give the canister a steady barometric pressure, and it will function as though you are on the ground. Take your medications in-flight with you in your carry-on luggage. Be comfortable, and relax. Get a window seat and enjoy the flight.

Currently, I take two medications to treat my asthma. One is preventative, and another for fast relief in moments of distress. A while ago, I switched away from a ventolin inhaler to Airomir, and I find I am sleeping better at night. I recommend it. (Ask your doctor!) My wife also informs me that I am not jerking my full body in my sleep anymore the way I used to once a night. There are a lot of options on the market, and you should work with your respirologist to see what works for you. A new medication, which I will not name, gave me some anxiety attacks when in combination with another puffer. My doc said it happens in a small samples of patients, about 5% of cases. So I switched.

I hope this has been helpful. Asthma is manageable, and sufferers have many options to help nowadays. If, however, I am wrong and there is some folklore I do not know about and people are finding this blog to learn about flapping their arms like Icarus and flying while suffering some asthmatic-like effects afterward, I have only one response.

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All original artwork on
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Prehistoric Insanity said...

This is one of the funniest and most imformative addressings of search hits I've read!

I had no idea you had asthma for example. Though I've worked with kids who've had it, I'm just this year myself getting to REALLY know about it through Rhonwyn's afflication. You guys are troopers, and I've been not taking my lungs foregranted as much anymore.

Kudos for supporting real medicine. I say real case new age purely natural is a farce, and I'm not pretending to be PC about it.

As for flying having flown to the otherside of the world a few times now I can say it is very safe, but I do dread long distance flights. Their incredibly boring, and take a lot out of you for a while. Also on international flights try to avoid change overs in the US. Their security screenings are really annouying, and if you have to go there wear sandals or easy on/off shoes cause you'll be taking them off a LOT!

Blue Collar Scientist said...

Excellent post. I'm a life-long asthmatic as well, and I have scarring in my lungs from untreated asthma in my childhood that has significantly reduced my lung capacity.

I can add to this that I've flown around Alaska in small, unpressurized airplanes up to about 15,000 feet with no asthma-related problems. For me at least, if the excursions to altitude are reasonably brief, no problems at all.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks, Craig. I was trying to inject a bit of humour into the not-funny. I hope Rhonwyn's having an eas spring! (Or wait, is it fall there?)

Supporting real medicine is the only way to help people. If they want to pop a couple of leeches in their cod-piece, at least I've said my bit.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for sharing your unpressurised experiences, Jeff!

My lung capacity is sucky too. Working with my respirologist the past 8 years has kept me out of the emergency room, but my capacity usually hovers around 75% when I'm feeling good.

The medicines feel so counter-intuitive, don't they?

"Can't breathe? Here, take a deep breath and hold it as loooonng as you can".

Or when they squirt carbon monoxide in your face to measure how you're feeling. Fun times.

Zach said...

I hate flying. I always, ALWAYS end up three or fewer rows away from a screaming baby.

I have cystic fibrosis, which doesn't really affect me on the plane itself, but it's a pain in the butt to drag all my medications wherever I go. I'm questioning leaving some of them home when I go to PAX in August. It's just three days...

Glendon Mellow said...

CF has to be tough, I'm sorry to hear that, Zach.

I'm relatively paranoid, so I always take all my meds with me. Of course, at the moment it's only three.

(Where's PAX?)

Zach said...

PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) is going to be in Seattle, in August. If you like gaming, it's like E3 but smaller and more fan-centric. It's my first time going--I'm very excited.

CF isn't so bad. There are patients who are a LOT worse off than me, with more severe "versions" of the disease. I try to take care of myself, though, and honestly, I'd probably be dead without my loving wife. I should blog about it sometime! :-)

I'm actually very healthy for a CF patient. My PFT's (lung function tests) are usually pretty kickass, my sputum is never green, and I'm able to gain weight. I weigh like 180 pounds right now, which is about as heavy as CF folks can get. Yeah, I should definately blog about this.

Glendon Mellow said...

Yeah. You should absolutely blog about this. My wife keeps me mindful of my puffers.

When I can't breathe, I get cranky.

A family-friend went through the double-lung transplant for CF. Scary stuff, but he's doing great. Three cheers for surgeons!

I will quietly go into a corner now to seethe with jealousy about the video-game expo.

Anonymous said...

As you might imagine I googled 'flying' and 'asthma' to land here. I was just curious, because I have only had diagnosed asthma for about a year and have not been on a plane in more than four years at least. Plus don't know a whole lot about asthma, except that it is quite tricky to control, and I seem quite adept at ignoring asthmatic symptoms... more so because I thought I needed to have the full blown asthma attack to do anything more about it. Point is, a slightly wiser me, wants to anticipate what I will need to do on this vacation in order to breath. I plan on taking all my meds on carry-on anyway, because, man, would it suck to lose my luggage. it did get me to thinking though. A flash spring storm can hit me right in the lungs like a fist, so hurtling myself into the atmosphere with rapidly adjusted pressure might have a similar effect. Thus the googling.

Glendon Mellow said...

Hi Myth!

As I said, I'm no doctor. But Yeah, taking your meds on the plane with you seems like a smart thing to do.

I see a respirologist here in lovely downtown Toronto a few times a year. Once, I asked him what asthmatics die from.

He said usually they don't die. That's pretty rare. Especially with a bronchiodilator medication at hand. So it can be scary stuff, but it doesn't have to be.

(When it does happen, it is heart failure. Heart tries to push all the low-oxygenated blood around and can't keep up.)

Anyway, enough morbidness. Ashma is controllable, and flying is fun. Go somewhere nice and dry, like Aruba, and tell yourself it's for health reasons. :-)

Thanks for checking out Flying Trilobite, Myth!

The Juggler said...

Random tidbit I learned while visiting a hospital for work last week (having flown, with my newly diagnosed asthma just that morning) And this DOES satisfy the reuirements for all scientifically-, cynically-minded types(my Dad was a card-carrying member of the skeptics society, there's a high bar for tidbits in my family) So -- here it is. Humming and whistling have been recently found to be very helpful methods of controlling asthma. Turning on the vocal cords, somehow helps with the breathing function. So -- you might feel like a git if you break out mid song, but give it a go! Happy flying, happy humming, happy breathing.

Glendon Mellow said...

Hello Juggler!

Good thing I whistle when I'm nervous, annoyed or in a crummy mood. I do it so my facial expression doesn't betray my thoughts.

I did a quick Google search to check out your claim, and it turned up this article. Interesting!

It seems there is an unrelated condition indistinguishable from asthma that affects the vocal chords of some people.

I'd recommend if people are curious about this, as I am, take the article to your respirologist and ask. Sometimes major newspapers distort the findings in major studies when they attempt to simplify, and it appears that the humming and whistling would not help all asthma-sufferers.

Thanks Juggler!

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dancilhoney said...

Asthma sufferers need to look for and heal that emotional component that prevents them from healing so that they can start the asthma healing.

respitrol for asthma

Glendon Mellow said...

Dancilhoney, the product you advertise is exactly the wrong type of scam to promote.

Homeopathic remedies are elaborate placebos.

Respitrol that you recommend says the following on their website:

Respitrol Ingredients: Official US Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia Ammonium Carbonicum, Antimonium Arsenicosum, Antimonium Tartaricum, Arsenicum Album, Bromium, Carbo Vegetabilis, Chlorinum, Kali Carbonicum, Lobelia Inflata, Stannum Metallicum, Sulphuricum Acidum.
Prepared at potent 10X, 30X and LM1 dilutions, our active homeopathic ingredients are stabilized in our oligotherapeutic base for maximum absorption and balancing response. Unlike most homeopathic medicines, Respitrol does not contain alcohol."

For readers of this blog that are unfamiliar with what this means, that impressive-sounding list of ingredients is likely not present at all in the final mixture. Homeopathic remedies are based upon a childish 19th Century idea that the further you dilute medicinal ingredients, the more effective they are. In addition, it uses a system of "like cures like". So if you suffer from breathing difficulty and wheezing, to make a homeopathic remedy you would take a chemical - sorry, "all natural ingredient" like say, arsenic, and dilute it in water "30C" until there is nothing left of the original ingredient.

I say there is nothing left, by the homeopaths own admission: In Respitrol above, you can see that some of the ingredients are diluted by "10C, 30C and LM1 dilutions".

Let's look at one of those. To dilute something by "30C", what that means is, a ratio of 1:1to the power of −60. (Pure ingredient would be 1:1). This means 10 to the power of 34 gallons of liquid “remedy” (10 billion times the volume of the Earth) would have to be consumed to get a single molecule of the original substance.

I do not mean to be cruel to those who feel they've felt better for it, but I cannot mince words over this: homeopathy is quack medicine that costs lives and diminishes people's health by fooling them with placebos. The placebo effect can help someone feel better for minor aliments, but for a serious asthma sufferer, stay way from dreck like Respitrol.

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