Prioritizing Health for the Holidays: How to Communicate Around Severe Asthma with Loved Ones

Managing severe asthma is a daily challenge for the 1.3 million people living with the disease in the United States. The holidays, however, present an inflated set of challenges with increases in travel and navigating unfamiliar environments. When visiting a loved one’s home during this time, seemingly harmless environmental factors such as woodburning fire, scented candles and pet dander can trigger a reaction in someone living with severe asthma. Severe asthma is a chronic and lifelong condition that is unpredictable and can be difficult to manage. For the Black community, who are among those who face the highest burden of severe asthma, these challenges come with particularly higher stakes. While hospitals tend to see heightened activity during the holiday season, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), Black Americans are 5 times more likely to visit the emergency department due to asthma and 62% of Black people with asthma do not have their symptoms under control.

While these challenges are significant, there are ways to better navigate severe asthma so that it does not stand in the way of spending time with loved ones. With the holidays quickly approaching, now is as good an opportunity as ever to prioritize your health and talk about severe asthma with friends and family. Amgen sat down with June Mack, a Black woman who has lived with asthma her entire life but wasn’t properly diagnosed until her 70s – despite having gone to the emergency department over 100 times in her life. June is joined by Dr. Reneé Matthews, an asthma advocate and medical expert, to share how to appropriately plan for holiday gatherings by communicating, connecting and learning more about managing severe asthma.

What was your experience managing your severe asthma? Has your severe asthma impacted you during the holidays?

June: Managing my severe asthma has come in different forms. The first step was completing an asthma education program through AAFA’s Health Equity Advancement and Leadership (HEAL) Innovation, an initiative that offers tailored programming to help people with severe asthma reduce the burden it has on their day-to-day lives. From there, I started seeing a local allergist and became more mindful of the triggers around me that I needed to stay away from. This can be particularly difficult around the holidays when I’m around family and friends who unknowingly bring allergens into my home, which is why it’s important to have conversations about my unique health needs beforehand.

Dr. Reneé, as a medical professional, do you notice people experiencing more flare-ups than usual around the holidays? What do you tell your patients who are concerned about holiday triggers?

Dr. Reneé: For hosts and guests alike, the holidays can be a minefield of allergens that could send someone to the hospital. Communication is key – it’s important to let people know about your severe asthma and any triggers ahead of time so everyone can enjoy the holidays in a clean, asthma-friendly environment. While severe asthma can sometimes feel like a burden, remember that everyone wants to create a happy and healthy environment for their guests.

June and Dr. Reneé, what are some of the unique challenges the Black community faces in managing their severe asthma? What are ways that you’ve connected and shared health information within the Black community?

Dr. Reneé: Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to have asthma compared to white Americans. Additionally, it is common for people in the Black community to not have a primary care physician, so the emergency room can tend to be their main form of care. Thankfully, the rise of telemedicine has made patient care and asthma management more accessible, particularly if you are looking for a specialist like an allergist or a pulmonologist. Like June, many don’t initially realize that asthma is a serious condition. That’s why I’ve found social media to be a helpful platform to connect with the community and hear firsthand what challenges they’re facing so I can better understand how I can be a resource.

June: One of the biggest challenges in the Black community is the cost barrier and lack of insurance that keeps people from seeking care. This often leads to little understanding of how to manage severe asthma or how to properly use medications. A lack of awareness of relevant resources kept me from getting my own asthma under control for so long. Now I take advantage of everyday situations, like my computer skills class, as an opportunity to connect with friends who are also living with this condition and knowledge share.

What about your severe asthma do you know now that you wish you knew sooner?

June: My severe asthma diagnosis unlocked a new understanding of myself and my health. My whole life I kept waiting for the day I would outgrow what I thought was going to be a “phase.” If I knew that my condition was chronic or that there were doctors that could help find the right management plan for me, I would have seen an asthma specialist sooner. It’s part of the reason I’m so passionate about sharing my experience with others and why I’m encouraging everyone to have candid conversations about their health this holiday season.

During this holiday season, what do you want people to know about how friends and families can show support to their loved ones living with severe asthma?

Dr. Reneé: Sometimes the best way to teach others how you want to be treated is to show them. As a host this holiday season, make a point to ask friends and family what allergies and triggers they may have, and they’ll likely ask the same! Ultimately, the best way to enjoy the holidays is to keep an open line of communication about your health needs.

To learn more, visit Uncontrolled Asthma In Black Women | BREAK THE CYCLE.

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