Survey Shows Asthma Takes Physical and Emotional Toll on Women

Vol. 11 •Issue 4 • Page 13
Allergy & Asthma

Survey Shows Asthma Takes Physical and Emotional Toll on Women

A young mother with asthma wheezes as she climbs the stairs with a load of laundry. After the chores are done, she plays tag outside with her sons, and her breathing becomes more difficult. She ignores her worsening symptoms and instead thinks of what to make for dinner. But her casserole never makes it into the oven because a full-fledged asthma attack sends her to the hospital for an emergency treatment.

This snapshot is a compilation of the results from “Women and Asthma in America,” a survey released in December. More than 500 adult women (18 years of age and older) with current asthma were asked about the frequency and severity of their symptoms, their views on asthma and the ways asthma affects their families. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and The Society for Women’s Health Research served as advisers to the project.

“We were looking to understand more clearly how asthma affected women and how it influenced their quality of life,” said Bob Lanier, MD, president of the ACAAI.

The following were among the report’s findings:

• 83 percent said their spouses or partners worry about them because of their asthma.

• 77 percent said asthma interrupted their physical activity or chores.

• 56 percent had an asthma attack that sent them to an emergency room or urgent care center.

• 50 percent had an asthma attack so severe that they felt their lives were in danger.

• 42 percent said asthma has made them unable to do things with their children.

• 40 percent had to decline, cancel or interrupt a social event because of their asthma.

• 38 percent reported asthma affects their sex life.

• 33 percent suffered from symptoms seven or more times a week.

“I think the major point of the study is that women take better care of their families than themselves,” Dr. Lanier said. “Many women do not take asthma seriously enough, and they may manipulate their lives so they can live with it.”


The survey revealed that women with asthma “fall far short” of the treatment goals established by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Twenty-seven percent reported coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness every day during the past four weeks.

Many women seemed to be lacking the proper information about their condition, according to the survey results. Thirty-two percent believed that it’s only possible to treat asthma symptoms, not their underlying causes.

In addition, the survey reported that women were confused about the role of quick-relief medications and long-term control medications. Half said they took quick-relief medications to prevent symptoms. Thirty-two percent used quick-relief medications daily.

“Any person with asthma has to understand the disease and how it waxes and wanes,” said Diane Stover, MD, chief of pulmonary service and head of the division of general medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Most people don’t take their medications when they’re symptom-free. “The proper way to handle asthma is to continue their medication on a routine basis and follow the symptoms and talk to their doctor before the symptoms are serious enough to merit an emergency room visit.”


The challenge the survey presents to clinicians is for them to target more educational efforts toward women with asthma, Dr. Lanier said. “Awareness is the key, but it doesn’t always translate into action.”

Clinicians must understand that socio.cultural pressures tell women to put their families’ needs before their own, which often delays proper treatment. If women are unlikely to complain about being sick, then clinicians will need to take the initiative to ask them about their symptoms and management.

Joan Gluck, MD, chair of the women’s health committee for the ACAAI, encourages her female patients to take time out of .their busy schedules to listen to their bodies. For example, she teaches them that asthma symptoms may be related to hormonal changes and can worsen around the time of menstruation.

Diet is another factor women should pay attention to. “Many asthmaticsare on steroid-based medications, which are very effective and generally safe, but they can cause bone loss, making it important to take calcium,” Dr. Gluck said.

Women also should consult with doctors about an appropriate exercise regimen, but many are reluctant to do so. “Women are encouraged from an early age to avoid strenuous activities if they have asthma,” Dr. Lanier said.

Dr. Gluck recommended that women try activities that can help them maintain open airways, such as yoga, swimming or playing a wind instrument.

“There is a lot women can work on,” Dr. Gluck said. “We do not have a cure for asthma, but we do have medication and can help women understand their condition. If asthma is controlling their lives, we can help.”

Schulman, Ronca and Bucuvalas Inc., a national research firm specializing in health issues, conducted the survey by telephone during October 2001. GlaxoSmithKline funded the study.

Caroline Crispino is editorial assistant of ADVANCE.