'If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters': One woman’s asthma turned out to be something more serious

Midge Webb noticed she was struggling to breathe during her nursing job. (Photo courtesy of Midge Webb)
Midge Webb noticed she was struggling to breathe during her nursing job. (Photo courtesy of Midge Webb)

Midge Webb first noticed something was off with her health when she started having shortness of breath during her job as a nurse. Her busy job didn’t allow for much time to sit and catch her breath — and it was increasingly difficult for her to get through her day without frequent breaks.

“I kept thinking, ‘Hey, I’m having trouble breathing here,’” Webb, then 40, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She eventually saw a pulmonologist, who diagnosed her with asthma and gave her two inhalers — one for overall asthma control and a “rescue” inhaler in case her symptoms flared up. “They really didn’t seem to do much at all,” Webb says. “I tried them and tried to stick with them, but sometimes I was compliant and sometimes I was not.”

Eventually, Webb got to the point where she felt like she regularly couldn’t breathe well. “I just didn’t feel like I was getting enough air in my lungs,” she says. “It made me feel anxious because, if you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

Things only got worse from there. Webb was a bodybuilder when she was first diagnosed with asthma, but eventually had to limit her activities because of her difficulty breathing. After about eight years of this, she finally got a new diagnosis: She had developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic condition that causes the airways in your lungs to become inflamed and thicken. People with COPD often experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, a chronic cough, fatigue, and wheezing, according to the American Lung Association.

Webb is now 59 and uses supplemental oxygen while she sleeps, sometimes relying on it during the day when she does activities such as vacuuming, or cooking a big meal. Due to her COPD, she was forced to retire from nursing, a career she loved. Webb also struggles when she comes into contact with cigarette smoke. “If I come out of the airport and someone is smoking, it locks my lungs up immediately,” she says. She’s now part of the American Lung Association’s patient advisory panel, where she regularly talks about what it’s like to live with her condition.

Webb’s doctors don’t know why she developed COPD, but she suspects that it’s due to secondhand smoke exposure from her grandparents. “Take care of your lungs and don’t smoke,” she says. “It’s not worth it.”

The link between asthma and COPD

“A lot of people view asthma and COPD as similar diseases on a continuum,” Jonathan Parsons, MD, director of the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Both are obstructive lung diseases that cause inflammation in the airways, but asthma often occurs in childhood (typically before the age of 20), while COPD onset is typically after age 40, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

However, research shows a correlation between severe asthma in childhood and the incidence of COPD. According to the American Lung Association, “children who suffer from severe, persistent asthma are nearly 32 times more likely to develop COPD in adulthood.”

The progression from asthma to COPD is often a concern with people who have a history of smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke, as well as those who don’t manage their asthma well, Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “These people may not take their medications to treat asthma or don’t have access to good medical care and eventually they progress to COPD,” he says.

This progression can happen through a phenomenon known as “airway remodeling.” That’s a permanent change in your airways that can make it harder to breathe all the time, not just when you’re having a flare-up of asthma, Casciari explains. And once airway remodeling happens, it can’t be reversed. “This happens fairly frequently,” Parsons says.

That’s why doctors stress the importance of seeing a medical professional if you’re having difficulty breathing, and doing your best to follow the treatment plan you’re prescribed. “I tell patients that asthma is not a curable disease, but it is controllable,” Parsons says. “As long as you are making every effort to control your asthma, the risks of it progressing into COPD are minimized.”

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