Asthma Off The Grid, Part 2: Treatments and Myths

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Last time, we discussed how to identify asthma attacks, the triggers that cause them, and how to tell them from other medical problems that cause shortness of breath. In part 2, we’ll talk about how to treat asthma with conventional and natural methods, plus dispel some “myths” that have come up over the years.




Various asthma inhalers

The cornerstones of asthma treatment are the avoidance of “trigger” allergens, as mentioned in our last article, and the maintenance of open airways. Medications come in one of two forms: drugs that give quick relief from an attack and drugs that control the frequency of asthmatic episodes over time. Below, the generic name is given with the brand name in parentheses. Remember that, in panic attacks, these medicines are ineffective.

Quick relief asthma drugs include “bronchodilators” that open airways, such as Albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil), levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA), among others. These drugs should open airways in a very short period of time and give significant relief from attacks. These prescription drugs are sometimes useful for people going into a situation where they know they will be exposed to a trigger, such as before strenuous exercise. Don’t be surprised if you notice a rapid heart rate on these medications; it’s a common side effect.

If you find yourself using quick-relief asthmatic medications more than twice a week, you’re a candidate for daily control therapy. These drugs work, when taken daily, to decrease the number of episodes over time. They’re usually some form of inhaled steroid. There are long-acting bronchodilators as well, such as ipratropium bromide (Atrovent HFA).

Another family of drugs known as Leukotriene modifiers prevents airway swelling before an asthma attack even begins. These are usually in pill form and may make sense for storage purposes. The most popular is Montelukast (Singulair).

Often, medications will be used in combination, and you might find multiple medications in the same inhaler. The U.S. pharmaceutical fluticasone/salmeterol (Advair), for example, contains both a steroid and an airway dilator. Remember that inhalers lose potency over time. Expired inhalers, unlike many drugs in pill or capsule form, have less effect than fresh ones. Physicians are usually sympathetic to requests for extra prescriptions from their asthmatic patients.


In mild to moderate cases of asthma, you might consider the use of natural remedies. Some natural methods involve breathing exercises:

Pursed-lip breathing: This slows your breathing and helps your lungs work better. Breathe in slowly through your nose for two seconds. Then position you lips as if you were whistling, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for four seconds.

Abdominal breathing: Similar to pursed-lip breathing but focuses on using the diaphragm more effectively. With your hands on your belly, breathe as if you were filling it with air like a balloon. Press down lightly on the belly as you slowly exhale.

There are also a number of natural substances that have been reported to be helpful. They include:

Ginger: A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology indicates that ginger is instrumental in inhibiting chemicals that constrict airways. Animal tests find that extracts of ginger help ease asthmatic symptoms in rodents. Use as a tea or extract twice a day.

Ginger and Garlic Tea: Add three or four minced garlic cloves in some ginger tea while it’s hot. Cool it down, strain and drink twice a day. Some report a benefit from just the garlic.

Other herbal teas are thought to help: Ephedra, Coltsfoot, Codonopsis, Butterbur, Nettle, Chamomile, and Rosemary all have been used in the past to relieve asthmatic attacks.

Caffeine: Black unsweetened coffee and other caffeine-containing drinks may help open airways. Interestingly, coffee is similar in chemical structure to the asthma drug Theophylline.

Eucalyptus: Essential oil of eucalyptus, used in a steam or direct inhalation, may be helpful to open airways. Rub a few drops of oil between your hands and breathe in deeply. Alternatively, a few drops in some steaming water may be good respiratory therapy.

Honey: Honey was used in the 19th century to treat asthmatic attacks. To decrease the frequency of attacks, stir one teaspoon of honey in a twelve-ounce glass of water and drink it three times daily.

Turmeric: Take one teaspoon of turmeric powder in 6-8 ounces of warm water three times a day.

Mustard Oil Rub: Mix mustard oil with camphor and rub it on your chest and back. There are claims that it gives instant relief in some cases.

Gingko Biloba leaf extract: Thought to decrease hypersensitivity in the lungs; not for people who are taking aspirin or ibuprofen daily, or anticoagulants like warfarin (Coumadin).

Lobelia: Native Americans actually smoked(!) this herb as a treatment for asthma. Instead of smoking, try mixing tincture of lobelia with tincture of cayenne in a 3:1 ratio. Put 1 milliliter (about 20 drops) of this mixture in 8 ounces of water and drink at the start of an attack, repeat every thirty minutes or so as needed.

Further research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of many of the above remedies, especially in severe asthma attacks. While you have a supply, consider standard medications if your peak flow reading is 60% or less than normal (discussed in the last article).


Don’t underestimate the effect of diet on the course of asthma. Asthmatics should:

  • Replace animal proteins with plant proteins.
  • Increase intake of Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.
  • Eliminate milk and other dairy products.
  • Eat organically whenever possible.
  • Eliminate trans-fats; use extra-virgin olive oil as your main cooking oil.
  • Always stay well-hydrated; more fluids will make your lung secretions less viscous.


Finally, various relaxation methods, such as taught in Yoga classes, are thought to help promote well-being and control the panic response seen in asthmatic attacks. Acupuncture is thought by some to have some promise as well.

I’m sure you have your own home remedy that might work to help asthmatics. If so, let us know.


Asthma is NOT contagious

There are many other myths associated with asthma; the below are just some:

  • Asthma is contagious. (False: You can’t get it from other people or animals.)
  • You will grow out of it. (False: it might become dormant for a time but you are always at risk of it re-emerging.)
  • It’s all in your mind. (False: although emotional stress may trigger it, it’s very real.)
  • If you move to a new area, your asthma will go away. (False: it may go away for a while, but eventually you will become sensitized to something else and it will likely return.)
  • Asthma should only be treated when an episode occurs. (False: chronic asthmatics are best treated with regular medication to reduce frequency and severity of attacks. Encourage your asthmatic group members to stockpile meds.)
  • You will become addicted to your asthma meds. (False: inhalers and oral asthma drugs aren’t addictive. It’s safe to use them on a regular basis.)

Here’s are two “true” myths: Asthma is, indeed, hereditary. If both parents have asthma, you have a 70% chance of developing it compared to only 6% if neither parent has it. Also, asthma does have the potential to be fatal, as I mentioned last article in a case dating from my active career. You’re at highest risk if you are over 65 years old.

Joe Alton MD

Dr. Alton


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