Asthma: The Thief Who Stole My Breath

It began in my mid-thirties when I started to wheeze and cough. I became breathless at the slightest exertion and repeatedly woke during the night struggling to breathe, with a tightness in my chest and coughing up a thick, slimy green phlegm.

I was suffering from adult-onset asthma. It felt as if I had been broken into, as if something had invaded my body, a smash-and-grab raid on my well-being.

My doctor dutifully prescribed a couple of inhalers, one to relieve the symptoms during an attack, the other as a preventative medicine.

But, unlike him, I didn’t just want to “manage” my asthma; I wanted to get the scoundrel that had committed the offence.

Something was triggering a reaction in my body. I wanted to know what it was. When a crime is committed you want to catch the offender. So, detective-like, I began to pursue various lines of enquiry. Naturally, I started with the more obvious suspects; those with a bit of previous or those that I knew could be troublemakers.

Animal fur can cause an allergic reaction in people. Pets were therefore put in isolation. I also purged the house of feather pillows and cushions, noticing that my asthma tended to occur mainly at night – the time when I was in close contact with my pillow.

Dust mites had to be a prime suspect. If anybody looks like they’re up to no-good, then it’s these critters. In our cosy, centrally heated houses dust mites thrive. The evidence seemed to be pointing to them. They had to be guilty.

So, I cleaned the house thoroughly and bought a more powerful vacuum. Yet, despite my belief in their guilt by association, I could not find any damning proof. Like a gang of Hoodies on a street corner these mites were an irritant, but I couldn’t prove that they were the cause of my problems.

Then again, I could perhaps have developed a sensitivity to the heavier pollution that inevitably went with the increased traffic on a busy road. It was just a hunch, but it needed investigating. I was particularly suspicious of diesel fuel. I moved to a quieter area. It didn’t help.

I wasn’t sure exactly how houseplants may have committed the crime, but they too had to be eliminated from my enquiries. They were duly given away, binned or obliged to struggle against the elements. Their disappearance did nothing for my asthma.

I changed shampoos, washing powders and deodorants. I even tried “ecologically sound” products, one’s that claimed to be chemical free.

As asthma is most likely to attack during the night and as the last thing I do before going to bed is brush my teeth, I thought toothpaste might be the cause. It was a positive lead. There is also evidence to suggest that sodium lauryl sulfate – the foaming agent of toothpaste – may be linked to respiratory difficulties. Yet, despite my hopes, I could find no incriminating link.

Research has suggested that other drugs, in particular aspirin, can affect asthma. In my case this was easily dismissed as I didn’t take any other medication.

Alcohol aggravated my asthma, but it didn’t seem to cause it. Similarly, cigarette smoke is definitely an irritant but given that I don’t smoke and that I tend to avoid secondary smoke it couldn’t be guilty of this particular crime.

Perhaps the way I breathed was causing my asthma. If you don’t breathe correctly then your lungs won’t work correctly. Like my driving, I may have picked up some bad habits. I tried different breathing techniques like Buteyko and meditation.

I even tried taping up my mouth whilst I slept, forcing myself to breathe entirely through my nose. That was scary. I wondered if I’d survive the night. But I did. And so did my asthma.

A remote possibility was the dust from tissue paper. Had the manufacturers changed the composition of tissue and thereby unwittingly triggered my asthma? I opted for handkerchiefs and even considered using the clear Izal toilet paper that my granddad used to have. It was a desperate, speculative, fruitless hope.

My asthma is worse in the autumn when it is damp. So I stopped drying clothes on radiators and increased my usage of the tumble dryer in order to reduce the moisture content of the air in the house.

The spores from certain moulds can also trigger asthma. In a house with no obvious dampness I set about cleaning behind each radiator – something which isn’t that easy to do and apparently, given the amount of grime I uncovered, something that in our house is not done that often. It was difficult to say whether or not this helped. There was certainly not enough evidence to secure any conviction.

Food could be implicated in a number of ways. Perhaps I wasn’t eating enough of the right foods or too many of the wrong foods. I began by cutting out foods that I might have suddenly become allergic to.

I also tried eating more healthily. I even eliminated all E numbers from my diet thinking that one of those might be the culprit. One range in particular – the sulphites – was put under close surveillance. This substance was known to have been behaving suspiciously.

However, after a thorough investigation, I have to report that none of these suspects could be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Of course, it may be that I’m looking for some kind of criminal partnership. There may be more than one offender. Or it could just be in my genes. I have been exposed to something that has triggered their activation and now they cannot be switched off. Given my genetic make-up and my lifestyle perhaps I was always going to be a target. Maybe I was asking for it.

And so, my asthma remains an unsolved crime. Another statistic in the figures.

But before closing the case I must make one last desperate plea. If you are aware of anything else that I can do to catch this criminal, then please let me know. I do require the public’s assistance. The offender is a menace to my health and must be caught. There may even be a reward for information leading to a conviction.

In the meantime, all I can do is to warn you. Watch out, the thief is still out there. It might be you next.