I shed some tears this morning for the families who lost loved ones in the Melbourne asthma crisis last night. I well know the pain of not being able to breathe and wondering where the next breath is going to come from. That we can be robbed of loved ones through such an unforeseen event is devastating. My heart also goes out to all the emergency responders who did an awesome job in such an unprecedented crisis but just couldn’t get to people fast enough.

The question many people will be asking themselves this morning is this: What would I do if I couldn’t breathe in a thunderstorm asthma event, if I rang 000 only to find the emergency system clogged, had no Ventolin and had to wait an extended time for treatment? How could I survive?

As a Breathing Educator who works with asthmatics here is my number one tip in dealing with this type of crisis: keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose. Why? Because your nose is designed to filter out particles such as pollens, bacteria, viruses, and other things your lungs do not like. The nose you can see on the front of your face is just the tip of the iceberg – so to speak. What you can’t see, and what sits behind your nose, is an incredible filtration system capable of removing fine particulate matter. The difficulty is that when we feel short of breath our natural tendency is to open our mouth to increase our intake of air. However this allows large amounts of unfiltered air to enter the lungs which then irritates the airways even further, precipitating the release of even more histamine which then further closes down the airways.

Help for Any Asthma Attack

Incidentally, keeping your mouth closed during any asthma attack can help as a closed mouth assists in maintaining normal carbon dioxide levels in the lungs. It is well known in the field of medical science that carbon dioxide is a smooth muscle relaxer, and that lowered carbon dioxide levels cause smooth muscle contraction. It is also known that mild asthmatics (before their disease progresses and air-trapping occurs) tend to have lower carbon dioxide levels than normal. Normal carbon dioxide levels in the lungs are 100-200 times what we find in the atmosphere which means that breathing heavily with the mouth open, such as during an asthma attack, can facilitate a worsening of the situation as gases naturally move from areas of high pressure to low pressure. Maintaining normal carbon dioxide levels in the lungs through keeping the mouth shut helps with opening the airways.

And another benefit of maintaining normal carbon dioxide levels? Carbon dioxide suppresses histamine production – in other words carbon dioxide is a natural antihistamine. We could all do with more of that when the air quality is poor.

Let’s hope we never see another crisis like we saw last night. However, if we do, understanding how the body works and working with it while waiting for our precious ambulance officers might help save lives.