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Cover photo of Asthma & Allergy Awareness Month: Asthma Educator's Personal Journey

asthma & allergy awAreness month: a personal story from lorene alba, an asthma educAtor and patient advocate

May marks Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month in the USA, making it the perfect time to amplify voices dedicated to improving understanding and management of these conditions. We’re thrilled to feature the insights of Lorene Alba, a USA Certified Asthma Educator (AE-C) with a wealth of experience in the field. She has been living with asthma and allergies since she was 16. 

Lorene’s background is as impressive as it is diverse. She has served in key educational roles at prestigious institutions such as the AAFA (Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America), the California Department of Public Health, and the American Lung Association in California and the National office. Today, she channels her expertise as a chronic disease educator and patient advocate, empowering individuals to navigate the complexities of asthma and allergies. 

In this special guest article, Lorene graciously shares her personal journey and the invaluable “toolbox” approach she has developed to manage her own allergies and asthma. Her story is not just one of resilience but also profound insight into the challenges faced by millions navigating these conditions daily. 

my journey with asthma and allergies: why awareness month is important to me.  

Picture of Lorene Alba, a USA Certified Asthma Educator (AE-C) and patient advocate
Lorene Alba, a USA Certified Asthma Educator (AE-C) and patient advocate. 

how it began. 

When I was 16, I had a bad case of bronchitis. I remember it well because I felt like I never actually recovered. I was given a quick-relief asthma inhaler to manage symptoms. It helped a bit, but for a few years afterward, I often had trouble catching my breath during physical activity. Bronchitis became an annual winter illness. 

In college, I majored in culinary arts, which included 10+ hours of working in cooking labs. I’m short (only 4’10”), and my face was very close to the open flames on the gas stove. The kitchen had no air conditioning and was hot and stressful. After a particularly long day, the students were cleaning the kitchen, and I told my classmate that I was having trouble breathing due to the smell of bleach. She said, “I know. I can hear you wheezing.” I was shocked and embarrassed that someone could hear me breathing so loudly.  

A few months later, my breathing required a trip to the emergency room. I was once again diagnosed with bronchitis and told I had asthma. I was given cough medicine and another inhaler and sent on my way. I also developed year-round allergies and started taking antihistamines and decongestants. 

my asthma and allergies caused me to change careers. 

After graduating from college, I started working in professional kitchens and even opened three restaurants of my own. However, being a chef is not as glamorous as it is made out to be on television. As I mentioned above, professional kitchens are hot, stressful, and full of fumes from gas stoves. For ten years, I struggled to breathe as a full-time chef and managed my asthma in the ER. I didn’t know any better.  

Picture for how Asthma and Allergies Caused Me to Change Careers

Despite all my ER and unplanned doctor visits for breathing treatments, I was provided little to no education on asthma management. No one explained how severe my asthma was or that monthly ER visits were not okay. I was told I “had” asthma in my early 20’s, but I didn’t receive an official diagnostic test (spirometry) until I was in my 40’s.  

Finally, I decided being a chef was too much for my lungs to handle, so I switched careers and went to work for non-profits. After a few years, fate brought me to the American Lung Association as an asthma educator and program manager. There, I learned all about managing asthma.  

educating others became my passion. 

I learned all I could as quickly as I could. I provided 1,000 hours of direct asthma patient education to become a certified asthma educator (AE-C). Because I managed my asthma in the ER for over a decade, I found myself with permanent lung damage. My mission became apparent – to educate others so they would not have the same experience I had mismanaging my asthma.  

After a severe asthma attack that required yet another ER visit, I was finally referred to an asthma specialist. This was when I was given my first lung function test. This attack was so severe that it took a few years to recover from. I was on oral and inhaled steroids, allergy shots, and nasal sprays. A work trip to San Francisco provided much-needed and unexpected relief. A few months later, I packed up and moved across the country to California, hoping to breathe better on the West Coast. It took two years after the move, but my symptoms did improve.  

I became a full-time asthma educator over 15 years ago and haven’t looked back. It’s my passion to help others living with asthma. I’ve also enjoyed working with clinicians to help them better understand asthma and the education patients need to manage their condition better.  

why asthma and allergy awareness month is important to me 

Here are a few reasons why asthma and allergy awareness is important to me.  

Asthma can be invisible.

I’m an expert at hiding my symptoms. For many years, I have practiced looking “normal” on the outside while struggling to breathe on the inside. I am a pro at pretending I’m breathing just fine when, in reality, I’m barely getting any air into my lungs. Currently, my main asthma symptom is coughing. My asthma attacks can very easily be considered a coughing fit instead of a breathing emergency that needs immediate medical attention.  

Stigma.

Asthma and allergies, like many other chronic conditions, are misunderstood. First, whenever you see a “nerd” on television, they usually have asthma and/or allergies. Late-night comedians enjoy making jokes at our expense. For some reason, having a runny nose and trouble breathing is hysterical to some. Awareness campaigns can help others better understand these conditions and foster empathy.   

Understanding the Impact.

Over 27 million people in the U.S. have asthma. About 4.5 million children under the age of 18 have asthma. It is a leading cause of missed school. 

Picture of a man sneezing as over 100 million people in the U.S. have various types of allergies yearly.

Over 100 million people in the U.S. have various types of allergies yearly. In 2021, about 81 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with seasonal allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever. If you don’t have these conditions, you probably think they are simply a minor inconvenience.  

However, an average of 10 people die from asthma each dayi. Many of these deaths are avoidable with proper education and appropriate treatments.  

Knowledge is Power.

Asthma and allergies are not managed simply by taking medication. People with these conditions need to understand the severity of their disease, how to identify and reduce triggers, and use medications appropriately. Awareness Month is the perfect time to educate patients and their caregivers on better managing their symptoms.   

finally, finding relief.  

California wildfires forced me back to the East Coast, but luckily, my symptoms are still very well controlled, thanks to using the “toolbox treatment” approach.  

This approach does not rely on one or two symptom prevention and relief treatments. Instead, I have various treatment “tools” to choose from. This is important because the severity and frequency of asthma and allergy symptoms can change daily.  

Picture of woman inhaling inhalator to reduce asthma as an alternative to Respiray Wear A+

Here are some of the tools in my treatment toolbox:  

  • Medications as directed by my doctor, as needed. I always have my asthma rescue inhaler with me to manage sudden symptoms.  
  • Appropriate supplements as directed by my doctor.  
  • Homemade ginger tea with honey and lemon. This can help me relax and quiet my cough.  
  • A full water bottle. Staying hydrated can help thin out mucus and reduce histamine production. 
  • Headache ice cap to reduce sinus headache pain.  
  • A heating pad to help calm and relax the muscles during coughing fits.  
  • A sinus rinse. 
  • Wearing the Respiray Wear A+ indoors to help prevent and relieve symptoms.   
Photo of Lorene Alba Wearing Respiray Wear A+ against Asthma and allergies

The Wear A+ is my personal, portable air purifier! Recently, I had old carpeting removed. The carpet and padding were dragged through my entire house and left a huge cloud of dust and dirt everywhere. I could smell the dust in the air, so I quickly put on my Wear A+ to keep from inhaling the dust particles. I felt an instant relief! To further protect myself, I wore the device while cleaning the mess the carpet removal left behind. The Wear A+ prevented a possible asthma attack.    

I also consider the tools I use to manage allergy and asthma triggers at home as part of my treatment toolbox:  

  • An air purifier and a dehumidifier in my bedroom to reduce indoor allergens like pollen, mold, and dust mites.  
  • An allergen spray to neutralize indoor allergens.
  • Vacuuming at least once a week with a HEPA filter vacuum.  
  • Damp dusting. 
  • No harsh-smelling cleaning chemicals.  
  • Wash bedding once a week in hot water.  

My goal is to prevent asthma and allergy symptoms. The best way to do this is to have a comprehensive and strategic treatment toolbox.  

I hope my story has inspired you to learn all you can about asthma and allergies and work with your medical team to find the best combination of medications, medical devices, and lifestyle adjustments to keep your conditions well-controlled too.

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