Chronic Illness Is No Picnic for Teens, But There Are Ways to Lessen the Impact

  • Asthma is a chronic illness that can't ever be counted upon to go away. And it's a fact that to keep asthma under control, you have to take actions that are different than people without asthma. For teens, those differences can present considerable challenges to treatment. Most adults don't enjoy having to remember to:

    • Avoid all manner of triggers lurking in our everyday environment
    • Take medicine 2 or more times a day
    • Always carry that odd-shaped hard plastic "puffer" everywhere you go

    But for teenagers, all of those things can make you seem very different from your peers. Avoiding triggers might mean passing up a sleepover at a friend's house where there are cats. Or avoiding that camping trip because the pollen count is too high. Or having to ask the waitress what's in every dish on the menu before you can order.

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    Taking medicine has to be a higher priority than putting on makeup, staying up till all hours watching horror movies or other more fun pursuits. It can't be forgotten in the hectic pace of a teen day, filled with school, social activities and after school clubs or sports. And the rescue inhaler has to be carried, even if your clothes are too tight to accomodate it or it doesn't fit in that cute little clutch purse you just bought.


    Teens just want to fit in, and when you have asthma and allergies, that can be kind of hard sometimes. So, one way teens cope is to stop taking medicine, "forget" to bring their rescue inhalers, and make risky choices that bring them into contact with triggers, so as not to be left out. In the end, all of those choices cannot only have unhealthy consequences, they can also produce the very outcome the teen is trying to avoid -- being different.


    Another barrier to asthma control for teens can be perception. One study found that 74 percent of teenagers dramatically overestimate their ability to manage their asthma, not realizing that having symptoms is a sign that things aren't working.


    But it doesn't have to be that way. There are ways to keep asthma under control AND still live a regular teen life without limits (or very few anyway).



    Tips for Teens With Asthma

    Here are some tips that have helped other teens to cope with asthma, keep it under control, and live an active, fulfilling life.

    • Figure out your asthma triggers. Use your detective skills and look for clues as to what sets off your asthma attacks. Write down your observations in a diary. Sometimes it's easier to pick out patterns that way. Once you figure out what causes your attacks, you'll be better able to avoid them.
    • Make sure you have an Asthma Action Plan in place. This might seem kind of silly, but having a written plan can really help you know what to do about asthma symptoms when they crop up. And it can also help other people help you if necessary.
    • Know the early clues that asthma control is slipping. If you're having symptoms more than twice a week, are waking up at night with a cough or wheeze, or need to use your rescue inhaler 2 or more times a week, then control is slipping. If you use a peak flow meter, you may be able to detect problems even earlier, before you start having symptoms. Start noticing how you feel right before an asthma attack. Once you know, you'll be able to take quick action to head things off.
    • Take your medication, exactly as prescribed. Taking your medicine is the only way to keep asthma from interfering with your life. But it's crucial to take the right amount at the right times too. The good news is that most asthma medication needs to be taken only once or twice a day, first thing in the morning and then before bedtime. For your rescue inhaler, get a pouch that clips on a purse, belt loop or waistband so that it's easy to carry it with you, even if it won't fit into a pocket. You can find specially made puffer pouches or even some cell phone holders would work too.
    • Share that you have asthma with your teachers & friends. You might be surprised to learn how many of them have asthma, allergies or other chronic illnesses too. More than 20 million people in the U.S. have asthma, so you're far from alone. Knowing what you're going through can help them understand why you make some of the choices you do. They can also look out for you, if it's ever needed.
    • Know that it's OK to test some limits. While it's NOT OK to test limits by skipping your medicine or deliberately coming into contact with your triggers (say, by petting or cuddling a cat), it IS OK to act as though asthma should not limit you from having fun and acting like other teenagers -- because it shouldn't. You can and should play sports and participate in athletic activities. That's a healthy choice for so many reasons, and as long as you keep your asthma under control, there's no reason why you can't be as active as any other teen. Swimming and stop-and-start sports like baseball might be easier to tolerate, but with the right treatment, you should be able to do any activity that you love (except maybe scuba diving).
    • Build your own support group. If you have friends and/or family members who you can turn to when things get to be a bit much, great! But if you don't, you might be able to find support from other teens with asthma. There are many asthma forums on the Web and you might be able to find a local support group through your hospital or local Lung Association chapter.

    The bottom line is having asthma isn't what any of us would wish for, especially during the teen years, which can already be filled with challenges. But, asthma doesn't mean you can't have a normal teen life either, as long as you approach it with a positive, "can do" attitude.

Published On: October 01, 2008