Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Sara Russell, pulmonary nurse coordinator at the Schmidt Chest Clinic at Intermountain Medical Center, on Wednesday, March 6, 2013.

SALT LAKE CITY — Treatment and management of asthma and other breathing illnesses are more important than some might realize.

"We usually don't see it in a patient setting until it is critical," said Sara Russell, a pulmonary nurse coordinator at the Intermountain Medical Center's C. DuWayne Schmidt Chest Clinic. "It really should be managed on a routine basis."

Russell works with patients to achieve a better quality of life, using patient education and various medications to keep asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder symptoms under control and to avoid hospitalization as much as possible.

"I don't think the public understands how important asthma management and COPD management is," she said. Since the two conditions share a lot of the same symptoms — coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and overall difficulty breathing — the only real way to differentiate is lung function testing, available only in a doctor's office.

Patients can arm themselves with knowledge of how to treat their condition should symptoms arise or cause problems. "It can end up being life-threatening if they're not treated properly," Russell said.

Russell and Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonologist at the clinic, will be answering questions on respiratory and pulmonary health as part of Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Health Hotline. Anyone interested can call 1-800-925-8177 between 10 a.m. and noon Saturday, or post a question on the Deseret News Facebook page,

Other respiratory illnesses that are common among Utahns include emphysema, which mainly affects smokers, but it is related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, Russell said.

"Tobacco changes the structure of the lungs. It does some remodeling that causes damage that isn't reversible," she said, adding that stopping smoking is a huge step in the right direction of being able to treat the condition.

"The longer you smoke, the odds go up on getting (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) and the severity of it increases the longer you smoke," Russell said.

Various drug therapies exist to help patients manage asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and emphysema, including long- and short-acting inhalers that provide immediate relief during episodes of difficult breathing. Stress or anxiety, a period of exercise and poor air quality, Russell said, can spur such sudden attacks where a broncho-dilator is necessary for immediate relief.

Sometimes, however, a maintenance inhaler is necessary to keep inflammation of the airways down.

Russell said a patient shouldn't require use of a rescue inhaler more than twice a week or more than twice during one night during the month. If a person is having an exacerbation of their condition and the prescribed medications are not working, they might need additional assistance with an antibiotic and/or systemic steroid. Beyond that, a doctor may be needed, including chest X-rays to determine the impetus of the problem.

The hospital-based clinic offers free educational classes for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and pulmonary rehabilitation; patients can call 801-507-4000 to sign up. Russell said proper use of inhalers and spacers, medications and having an action plan are important parts of the education process, which leads to better management of the diseases.

"If you do have asthma, it is pretty important to get it recognized, optimized and maintained," she said. "Otherwise, it can put a damper on people's quality of life, landing them in the hospital."

Untreated asthma and other breathing illnesses can cause disturbances in sleep patterns, inhibit routine activity levels, result in missed work and recurrent infections, as well as nonfunctioning lungs and bloodstreams, which provide oxygen throughout the body.


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