In September 2016, 34-year-old Laura Levis passed away from a sudden and seemingly random asthma attack. While her tragic death was completely unexpected, her husband, Boston Globe reporter Peter DeMarco, believes it could have been prevented. This year, he’s making sure that families of asthma sufferers are aware of the dangers that come with the fall season—specifically one particularly dangerous week.
RELATED: 7 Signs You Could Have Asthma
In a recent article published on WBUR.org, Boston's NPR channel, DeMarco revealed that his wife actually died during Asthma Peak Week, a week in late September when asthma episodes, attacks, and hospitalizations spike due to high ragweed season, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).
"Although peak asthma time can vary from late summer to early fall, the third week of September is known as Asthma Peak Week," Dr. Clifford Bassett, an NYU-affiliated allergist and spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, tells Health. "Every September, asthma hospitalizations rise and doctors see more people with asthma episodes and attacks. This is the time of year we see a significant rise in various pollen, i.e. ragweed, weeds, as well as molds."
Asthma, a chronic illness that nearly 25 million American suffer from each year, causes the airways to produce extra mucus and swell, which can make it hard to breathe, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). While some people only show mild symptoms, others can experience life-threatening asthma attacks, which can completely cut off a person's air supply.
Dr. Bassett adds that air pollutants, including ozone may be higher during warmer weather months and can lead to exacerbation of sensitive individuals with asthma. With air pollutants and environmental allergens peaking at the same time, he explains, it's the perfect storm of asthma triggers.
"Each year I see patients with new onset asthma during the peak pollen season who present for the very first time with allergy and respiratory symptoms," says Dr. Bassett. "They are often surprised to learn they have seasonal triggered asthma. In fact, having a history of allergies is a risk for developing asthma."
Dr. Bassett explains that the allergens exposed during peak week can can worsen coughs, cause wheezing and difficulty breathing, especially while exercising.
Fortunately, there are ways for those with asthma to take precautions against the high-risk week. The AAFA recommends following an asthma action plan—a series of steps that can be taken if someone believes they are about to experience an asthma attack. The AAFA says that the first step is to recognize the early symptoms of an asthma attack, which include severe shortness of breath, chest retractions (which are rare in adults), trouble walking or talking due to shortness of breath, excessive coughing, and hunched shoulders. If you experience any of these symptoms, it's important to seek medical attention immediately.
People with asthma can prepare for peak week and reduce their chances of suffering from an asthma attack by taking precautions like regularly washing hands, avoiding people who are sick, and removing shoes and clothing that may bring allergens into the home, the AAFA says. "Good asthma control year-round is key to staying healthy during September," says Dr. Bassett. "Stick with your treatment plan, avoid your triggers and pay attention to your asthma control. Then next year, you’ll be better prepared to face Asthma Peak Week."
One thing to keep in mind however: If you do get sick with a respiratory illness or find your allergies are harder to control, don't just ignore it. "That can make your asthma harder to get under control if you get to the point where you need emergency treatment," says Dr. Bassett. "It can also have serious consequences," he adds.
Hopefully DeMarco's story, while hearbreaking, will serve as an eye-opening warning that allergy season—specifically Asthma Peak Week—is not something to take lightly.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter