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Asthma and Long Term Travel

If I could change one thing about myself I would magically remove my asthma, I’m not sure how that would work but that’s what I would do. Ordinarily it’s a bit of a pain, even when I’m at home I have to make sure I take steroid inhalers every morning and night, make sure I have a Ventolin with me everywhere I go (and a spare) and be careful not to get stressed, inhale too much dust, stroke cats or get too cold. So how hard is it going to be when I’m on the road for a year with only a backpack for company?

Many people would say ‘don’t go’ but I don’t want my illness to hold me back. It rarely has before and with so many people suffering from asthma to some degree, I thought I’d share my findings…

Tell people you have asthma

Many people don’t even know that I have asthma because I’ve always been embarrassed about having it – in the media it’s portrayed as something the fat, geeky kid has – and I don’t think many people realise that it’s incredibly dangerous. So if you are a sufferer make sure that you tell people and show them where your inhaler is so if you do suddenly have an attack they won’t be shocked.

I’ve had sudden attacks and the person I was with thought I was choking or having a panic attack – nope, just can’t breathe. In fact my old drama teacher put a paper bag over my face when I was having an attack, which is the worst thing you could do to anyone who can’t breathe – I was carted off to intensive care for a week so I think he learnt his lesson.

Being open and honest about your condition when you’re not around family and friends is crucial – tell any tour operators, guides and even hotel staff as well as fellow travellers. You might feel like a dick, but it could save your life.

IMPORTANT: You must declare that you have asthma when buying travel insurance. Don;’t even think about not getting it! Also, some company’s may not cover and a pre-existing illness can increase the cost dramatically but better safe than sorry.

What kind of asthmatic are you?

People are quick to point out that ‘my asthma isn’t that bad’ particularly if I have to call off plans because I’m feeling unwell. Asthma is a very private thing, it’s so awkward not being able to breathe that sufferers mainly just hide away until their breathing improves. After an attack you’re kind of wiped-out too so you need a day, or longer, to rest. Admittedly, although I have to take drugs everyday, my asthma isn’t noticeable to others for the most part. Some people are fine 99% of the time, some have difficulties everyday. It depends on the person.

While I am mostly fine, sometimes, completely out of the blue, I’ll have a huge attack and be rushed to hospital for a up to two weeks. To be honest, I have no idea why it happens most of the time, sometimes I’ve had warning signs and ignored them. Knowing my condition as well I do I have to be super-cautious so this means I’ll be informing my asthma nurse Karen of my trip waaaaaay in advance and trying to work out a best plan of action with her.

Seek professional advice

The last thing I want is to be in an ICU in Delhi or somewhere so I’ll be getting my asthma nurse to give me a kind of lung MOT, look at my medication (Symbicort in case you’re asking) and evaluate whether it needs changing or a change in dosage. I’ll also be getting an emergency course of Prednisolone (strong steroid tablets) to take if my asthma worsens while away. On top of this I’ll be stocking up on A LOT of inhalers and spares – at £8 a pop I’ll have to factor this into my budget.

Know your limits

While travelling there’s a plethora of exciting (and dangerous) activities to experience, be it hiking, mountain climbing, diving or (eek) sky diving. If you’ve got asthma you’ll want to be extra careful before you plan to do any of these adventurous pursuits.

This is what Asthma UK has to say on the matter:
“Contact your doctor before undertaking these activities. Always tell the instructor you have asthma and ensure that your reliever is easily accessible. You should mention your asthma on medical insurance, fitness declaration and medical waiver forms.”

Scuba diving is a big part of the Southeast Asia experience but unfortunately I won’t be taking part in it, while it’s a shame, it’s just not worth the risk. I’m a water baby, though, and a good swimmer so I’ll still be enjoying the water safely.

Here’s what Asthma UK has to say on the matter:
“You may have problems when scuba-diving because of the triggers to which you are exposed when you dive (cold air, exercise, stress, emotion). Regulations on scuba-diving by people with asthma vary between countries; some do not allow anyone with asthma to scuba-dive.”

I’ll also be visiting some high-altitude areas on my travels such as Cerro de Pasco and La Paz where the air is thinner so I’ll take care to not over-exert myself in these places.

These are just MY personal limits, that’s not saying that because you have asthma you shouldn’t do anything, for-instance if your trigger is pollen and pollution then climbing a mountain may be just the ticket. The clean air up there will probably improve your breathing. Likewise if your dream is to scuba dive then do everything you can to make sure you can do it – just do it safely.

Don’t let it hold you back

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Asthma it’s that it can make you scared – I don’t think I did any sports at all from the ages of 3 to 23 because I was terrified I’d have an attack and die (as was my mother). Turns out, I actually LOVE running, I’ve taken part in races even, and although I’ll never be fast, it’s just good that I can run! By taking a puff of my inhaler before setting off and concentrating on my breathing and pace, I can run 10k. Some people with normal lungs can’t do that. So fellow asthmatic, if you want to backpack the globe, then do it!* This article may seem like a bummer, but with 5 million of us out there I wanted to help out anyone who is in the same boat.

*Unless you are very, very ill. I cannot stress enough that this is only my personal condition which luckily is well-controlled enough for me to travel. Always, always, always consult your doctor or asthma nurse. 

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Northern bookworm in the South with a thing for interiors, fashion, books and travel. Thanks for visiting!


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