Living and working with asthma

Leena Fontell, 64, a Helsinki-based pharmacist, leads an active life. Her chronic asthma has not interfered with her life since she was prescribed the right medication. Today, her treatment is managed by an online doctor.

As a child, Leena Fontell could not even imagine that she would one day be able to exercise practically on a daily basis. At that time, most people with asthma stayed indoors in the winter.

When asthma progresses and becomes more severe, the bronchial tubes contract and the mucous membranes are sensitive to various stimuli.

People can develop asthma at any age. Fontell was diagnosed with asthma as a child, and she has witnessed how its treatment has changed over the decades.

Adrenaline for attacks

As a child, Leena was occasionally hospitalised for asthma, during the birch pollen season in May, for example.

“There were no drugs for asthma until the late 1960s, so people were mainly treated when they were having an asthma attack. They were injected with adrenaline, usually in a hospital.”

As Leena’s mother was a nurse, she was allowed to inject Leena with adrenaline at home. Sometimes Leena was too tired to walk the 200 metres back home from school. At those times, the school caretaker called her mother, who arrived to inject Leena with adrenaline.

“Back then, you just needed to wait until the attack was over. You had to rest for days and sleep in practically a sitting position,” Leena explains.

Leena was ten years old when she was prescribed her first actual asthma medication in the form of tablets. It was a revolution in the treatment of asthma.

More effective treatments

As a student, medication allowed Leena to lead a relatively normal life, and her pharmacy studies also helped her understand her own medication. Her mother was worried, but Leena was able to manage a full-time job despite her asthma, and she worked until retirement age. She was also able to enjoy travelling abroad, cycling and meeting her large group of friends.

“Cold winters have been difficult, though, fluctuations in temperature and humidity in particular, but these can be controlled by means of modern medication.”

Leena’s basic medication consists of a cortisone aerosol with long-acting bronchodilator.

“If I get the flu, I’m easily sick for five weeks. Regular medication is a necessity,” says Fontell.

She still needs to be careful with varying humidity and cold, when spending a late summer evening on a restaurant patio, for example.

Desensitisation helps

When Leena spends time at a summer cottage or travels to a new place, she must take her antihistamines with her.

 “Everything that causes allergenic symptoms may also cause asthma symptoms.”

However, Leena has desensitised herself to hazelnut. She can now enjoy two pieces of hazelnut chocolate without getting symptoms.

“I also love macadamia nuts, but I’m so allergic to them that I don’t dare start desensitisation on my own. Even one white Christmas nut makes my throat swell and my ears itch so much that I want to clean them with a bottle brush.”

Exercise gives strength

Leena exercises several times a week, sometimes almost every day.

“I go aquajogging once a week, and in the winter I go ice swimming weekly,” says Fontell.

At the swimming pool, she swims for an hour at a time, and she also goes hiking.

She recently returned from a hiking trip to Muonio in Lapland. She experienced no problems during the trip.

“Our group of four hiked on the fells for ten kilometres at a time. I was able to keep up with everyone else. Although I was out of breath after walking to the top of a fell, it was not alarming.”

Leena believes that muscle tone helps keep asthma symptoms in check. She encourages asthma patients to sprint over short distances occasionally to work up a sweat and then take a break.

Online treatment

Leena has had many kinds of experiences of doctors. She had a personal doctor as a child and during her career. After her retirement, she was assigned a doctor at the local public healthcare centre, and she was not satisfied with the situation.

Things are better now: Leena has had an online doctor at the Allergy Hospital for a while.

“This contact was established when I was treated there for a prolonged cough three years ago. We keep in touch via email, and they prescribe me medications if I have problems such as the flu or feelings of anxiety.”

If the online doctor’s instructions and medications do not help, Leena gets an appointment.

In her opinion, public healthcare centres’ most important task is to recognise when a patient needs further examinations.

Four tips for people with asthma

  • Exercise daily
  • Sleep well
  • Eat healthily
  • Remember to take your medication


Text: Helena Raunio