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Support from friends is important when asthma becomes worse

Jaana Pahkamäki, who lives with asthma, finds strength in exercise and hobbies. She has found many of her best friends through her illness.
1/18/2023 Author / Jaana Tapio Photographer / Sabrina Bqain

Järvenpää-based Jaana Pahkamäki, 59, enjoys the moments when she can open tubes of paint.

"Because of asthma, I use water-soluble oil paints so I don’t need to use turpentine, which irritate the respiratory system,” Jaana says.

Asthma concerns are reflected in small everyday choices. Jaana cannot have pets, and she needs to be selective in the products she buys because of her sensitivity to scents. However, she doesn’t want to let asthma limit her life too much.

"For example, I don’t completely avoid scents, so that I won’t become overly sensitive to them.”

Jaana had asthma symptoms as a child in the 1960s, but the disease was not diagnosed then. The symptoms subsided by school age, and the family even had dogs. Jaana was also able to go horseback riding. However, in her forties, the asthma symptoms reappeared during a respiratory infection.

“I was not on regular medication at the time. I was only using a bronchodilator when I had the flu. However, my asthma gradually got worse, and I have been using an anti-inflammatory cortisone drug for almost ten years.”

Pahkamäki has no pollen allergies but has become sensitised to foods over the years.

A job in a pharmacy is suitable for an asthmatic

Pahkamäki works as a pharmacist, and has attended training through her work, where she has gained more knowledge about her disease. A pharmacy is a suitable working environment for an asthmatic, too, because no strong fragrances are used in pharmacies. One Easter, however, yellow hyacinths were brought to the workplace.

“Then I had to ask: do you want me or the hyacinths? However, I believe that my colleagues understand my situation well through working together.”

Talking about the disease and the needs it creates has always been easy for Jaana, because most people understand the limitations of asthma.

Talking about the disease and the needs it creates has always been easy for Jaana, because most people understand the limitations of asthma.

“One time, I moved to sit in the aisle in the cinema because a person sitting near me smelled too much of tobacco. The usher came to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to sit in the aisle, but when I explained my situation, they found me a new seat. Most of the time, people help.”

Exercise at the pace of asthma

In the summer, Pahkamäki plays golf because it’s a sufficiently slow-paced sport for an asthmatic. Her sports activities also include bowling and squash, as well as daily walks and cycling.

“Asthma does affect what kind of exercise I can do. For example, I don't like cross-country skiing because it severely impacts my breathing.”

Pahkamäki also likes to attend the exercise classes offered by the local branch of the Organisation for Respiratory Health in Finland, because she knows in advance that the level is right for her.

“Last time, the Pilates instructor told us directly that we wouldn’t be able to handle a standard group. There is also a mental aspect to this. If you’re surrounded by people who are at a more advanced level, exercise is not as enjoyable as it is when the pace is slower and your illness is taken into account.”

The exercise classes also offer an opportunity to chat with peers. Jaana is actively involved in the local organisation’s peer support activities and volunteers as a peer helpline worker, for example.

Street dust and the first sub-zero temperatures of winter take their toll on asthmatics

Jaana’s asthma often becomes worse when there is street dust in the spring, during the first sub-zero temperatures of winter, and when she is surrounded by the scents of Christmas. Her bronchodilator use increases significantly during these periods.

“I can tell by the light wheezing in my breathing when the temperature has fallen below zero during the night. Fortunately, the body gradually gets used to the cold weather.”

Jaana occasionally needs to adjust her medication. She is interested in biological drugs, which some of her friends are already using. Biological therapies are injection treatments specifically formulated for the patient according to the type of disease.

“It’s a relief to know that there is an alternative if existing medicines are not enough. What also gives hope for the future is that asthma seldom becomes very severe.”

Friends provide important support in the treatment of asthma

The only change Jaana would like to see in the treatment of her illness is easier access to doctors. Her occupational healthcare service treats only acute situations, and she has no regular contact with a doctor for treatment of her asthma. In public healthcare centres, appointments with nurses are typically available, but not with doctors.

However, through the local organisation, Jaana has made friends whose support helps her cope even in difficult times. Colleagues are also important.

“I tend to react slowly when my asthma gets worse. It’s good that my friends tell me to see a doctor immediately. It boosts confidence to have friends looking out for you,” says Jaana, who is single.

I tend to react slowly when my asthma gets worse. It’s good that my friends tell me to see a doctor immediately.

Peers can also provide practical tips for various situations.

“As human beings, we are never complete. We always need to be curious enough to learn something new. Someone else’s tips may be new to you.”

Jaana Pahkamäki’s tips for asthma sufferers

  • Breathlessness is nothing to be afraid of, but you must learn to distinguish healthy breathlessness from shortness of breath.
  • It’s worth measuring your PEF values. The PEF measurement shows the peak expiratory flow rate during the first second of breathing. Based on variations in the values, your doctor can give you advice on increasing your medication. The values can change surprisingly quickly.
  • Find out whether your patient association organises exercise classes. It can be more pleasant to exercise with people who are at the same level as you.