Asthma in the Workplace: What RTs with Asthma Have to Say

health care workers

A new report from the CDC shines a light on asthma in the workplace. Overall, the report finds 6.8 percent of employed adults have asthma — some 11 million people. The highest prevalence occurs in the health care and social assistance industries, where 8.8% suffer from the condition.

The prevalence of asthma among respiratory therapists was not quantified in the report, but anecdotal evidence suggests a significant number of people in the profession brought the condition with them when they came into the job.

These therapists have special insights into what it takes to keep asthma from interfering in the workplace and several of them share their experiences with us here.

Overcoming stereotypes

Angela Lorenzo, MS, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, was diagnosed with asthma at age 10, though she knows the symptoms began much earlier. But that was back in the 1960s when stereotypes surrounding the condition still ran rampant.

“I was a very active child and when I complained of getting winded faster or seemingly slowing down I was told, ‘You’re a girl, you can’t run around like that,’” she recalls now. “Can you believe that?”

The New York therapist says controlling her asthma has been an evolution over the past 50 years. She’s developed more allergies as time has marched on, and at one point was advised to leave the profession because latex allergy was thought to be a possibility.

“I was devastated,” Lorenzo said. “So I went to see if I developed a latex allergy but food allergies were the culprit.”

New Jersey therapist Kevin Feeney, BA, RRT, RRT-NPS, AE-C, can’t remember a time when he didn’t have asthma. Diagnosed at 18 months, the 60-something says the mainstay of treatment when he was a kid was tendril pills for attacks and prednisone and antibiotics for exacerbations.

“I started taking inhaled steroids in my early 40s,” Feeney said. “They turned my life around. It was like my lungs were let out of jail.”

With a 20-year history of asthma, Missouri RT Heather McKay, BHS, RRT, has learned to use her inhaler medications as ordered and she also measures her PEFR when she is not feeling her best.

She says the peak flow meter helps her know when her asthma is starting to flare so she can get to the doctor asap.

Allergy shots help

Janae Zachary, BS, RRT, was diagnosed around two or three and takes Advair daily, albuterol PRN, and recently started allergy shots.

“I sought an allergist in the last year because I was constantly feeling tight and using my inhaler more often,” she said. She can already tell a big difference and feels she’s making progress.

Minnesota therapist Vicki Engmark, BSRT, RRT, CPFT, has had asthma since childhood and also has a child with the condition. She believes people with asthma need to be vigilant about taking their controller medications and if they can’t seem to make that happen they need to talk to their health care providers about it so they can work together to come up with a new plan.

Knowing your spirometry results can help people keep on track too.

“Sometimes asthmatics get too used to our symptoms — we don’t even notice them,” Engmark said. “But watching changes in FEV1 helps make an objective link to the subjective.”

Leann Chase, RRT, was diagnosed with asthma when she was only six weeks old. In addition to daily inhaled steroids, her medication regimen includes nebulizers and a rescue inhaler to use PRN.

She believes a clean environment helps to keep her asthma in check.

“I try hard to vacuum twice weekly, I dust with a damp washcloth, and have no carpeting in 80 percent of my home,” she said. She avoids standard cleaning products as well, since they make her wheeze, opting instead for vinegar and hydrogen peroxide with warm water.

Anastasia Altamirano, RRT, RRT-ACCS, was diagnosed in adulthood and says it took her a while to come to grips with her asthma.

“To keep myself from having complications interfering with work, I try to keep my face covered in the cold, stay current on my allergy medication, stay inside on high pollen count days, and limit contact with the sick — or wear a mask — and use my medications properly as directed,” she said.

Avoid your triggers

Jakki Grimball, MA, RRT, AE-C, had her first asthma exacerbation in October 1981 when she moved back to South Carolina from Miami, FL. Already a young woman at the time, the incident marked the beginning of her 36-year journey with the condition. To keep her asthma under control she uses her controller medication daily

“Most important, I avoid my known triggers as much as possible,” Grimball said.

Grimball says she keeps a hand vac in her office and uses it on a regular basis to keep dust levels to a minimum.

Idaho therapist Frankie Silva, RRT, has had asthma since childhood and strongly believes avoiding her triggers is minimizing her need for rescue inhalers.

“My triggers are smoke, animal hair, and allergens during spring,” Silva said. “If I notice I am getting short of breath or wheezing I take my medications immediately.”

Julie Smith, BSRT, RRT, CPFT, first realized she might have asthma after she enrolled in her respiratory care program in college. While it’s only gotten worse as the years have gone by, she follows best practices to keep it under control.

“I listen to my body and the early warning signs and start treatment then, before it gets out of hand,” says the Ohio therapist. She has an action plan with her pulmonologist and the meds on hand she knows she’ll need if her condition warrants.

California RT Angela Rizzuto, RRT, RRT-NPS, RRT-SDS, has had asthma since age two and says her words of wisdom for other therapists with the condition are to “make sure you take care of yourself, carry your rescue inhaler with you while working in case you need it, take your daily medications every day, and see your doctor for routine check-ups and/or immediately when you feel a flare up coming and your immediate rescue medication isn’t working.”

Good advice

Clearly, these therapists believe asthma can be managed in the workplace, as in any other setting. Here’s a compilation of their top pieces of advice for patients who are struggling to keep asthma under control on the job:

  • Don’t assume your condition is static. Sometimes we need to adjust our therapies/lifestyle or work environment.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your employer to evaluate your work environment if you think there is something affecting your health and ask for reasonable accommodations.
  • Remember to take your controller meds daily.
  • Eat right and get enough sleep.
  • Be proactive and know your body; listen to what it is telling you.
  • Know your triggers and avoid them if possible; if you can’t avoid your triggers, prepare for them.
  • Start any exercise routine after clearing it with your physician and start slowly if you are new to the routine. Know your limitations.
  • Make sure bed linens are washed in hot water, clean under the bed, and try to keep the bedroom allergen free because almost a third of your day is spent there.
  • Know what months are your worst and do everything possible to stay healthy during that time.
  • Have a pulmonologist who you trust implicitly.
  • Have an action plan with your pulmonologist and have the meds at home so that you can implement the plan without having to wait.
  • Know your spirometry and peak flow measurements.
  • Consider becoming a Certified Asthma Educator earning the esteemed AE-C credential; take AARC’s Asthma Educator Certification Course to help you move closer toward your AE-C goal.

Keep the Conversation Going

What experiences stand out to you from working while managing your own asthma? Share your stories and tips on AARConnect.