JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Jacksonville-area hospital emergency rooms see an increase in the number of people suffering from heat-related illnesses, the unusually hot weather and humidity is also affecting people who have asthma.
A person suffers asthma when airways to the lungs become swollen, making it difficult to breathe. Asthma sufferers describe the feeling as being like trying to breathe with a rag in your mouth.
The extreme heat and humidity make the air feel even thicker for asthmatics.
"It's really difficult for you," said Shavon Stokes, a Jacksonville resident who was born with asthma. "You have a hard time keeping up. Things that are easy for some people become difficult for you."
Stokes knows when an attack is coming on.
“After a while, you get to a point where you’re just trying to breathe," Stokes said. "You’re just trying to get some air in your body.”
Dr. Sunil Joshi, with Family Allergy and Asthma Consultants, treats asthma patients. He told News4Jax on Tuesday that he's seeing an increase in high school athletes suffering from asthma and complaining about shortness of breath.
“They’re exercising in the heat and humidity that they’re not used to doing, and so their asthma tends to flare up as a result of that," Joshi said.
Joshi warns asthma sufferers who choose to exercise in extremely humid conditions to be careful.
“If you’re jogging just for pure exercise when the humidity and heat index is over 100 degrees, you’re just setting yourself up for issues," he said.
Those issues can include dehydration and other heat-related illnesses that are already sending people to area emergency room.
“Or if you have asthma, asthma exacerbation, it’s better to do that indoors if you can," he said.
Joshi said there’s a harsh reality for people who either work or exercise in the extreme humidity.
“If you have asthma, you’re very likely to have trouble," he said.
If you have asthma and work or exercise outdoors, Joshi suggests using your inhaler 15 to 30 minutes prior to outdoor activities, as opposed to using the inhaler after you begin to feel asthma symptoms coming on.
“By using the inhaler ahead of time, you’re opening up your lungs and keeping them open for about four to six hours," he said. "Exercise causes bronchoconstriction of airways, even to people who don’t have asthma.”
And when that happens, Stokes said it's like being held underwater without oxygen.
“If you’ve ever been held under water before, after a while, you’re, like, 'OK. I can hold my breath for a little bit.' But once it gets really difficult, it just becomes hard to breathe and you just want that fresh air," Stokes said.
Joshi said mild humid air can be good for the lungs, but during times of extreme humidity, the air feels too thick for asthma sufferers to breathe.
Hydration helps limit asthma symptoms
Hydration plays a role in preventing asthma attacks because, when you're dehydrated, the lining of your airways become too dry.
That's why, according to doctors, drinking water can keep you from experiencing asthma symptoms.
If you’re an asthmatic who is not drinking enough water, your airways can become swollen and dry at the same time.
"You might be active, but maybe you’re not hydrating as much as you are supposed to," Stokes said. "Your lungs are not used to putting in the extra work for the extra weather.”
Something as simple as walking can be more of a stress on the lungs when the body is not hydrated.
“When you lose fluid because of the humidity and the heat, you tend to have shortness of breath, and the shortness of breath could be because you’re not getting enough blood supply to the lungs," Joshi said.
Researchers recommend people with asthma drink at least 10 eight-ounce glasses of water every day to stay hydrated.