Friday, October 21, 2011

Where Is the Asthma in Fiction?

This is the third post in my "Where are the…" series. I've asked "Where Are the Allergies?" and "Where Are the Genetic Diseases?"

Asthma actually does appear in fiction, to some degree. I can't recall any titles with it, but I know I've probably read some, and I've at least heard of people, like Lisa Gail Green, making asthmatic characters. I have the impression that asthma (or diabetes) usually show up in something like a thriller, where the kidnapped child is without her medication and must be found before time runs out.

In those cases, it's a nice use of a chronic condition, but there's so much more possible—and more than 7% of adults have some form of asthma. So why is asthma so rare in fiction life?

There's even more than one form of asthma. (Here comes the biology talk, but it's fairly mild today.)

Asthma means the airways inflame and constrict, making it hard to breathe to the point of wheezing and coughing. (Sound familiar? It's comparable to part of what happens with the allergic reaction of anaphylaxis.) It's a chronic (long-term) condition. As an analogy for how it works, you can think of it like eczema. You'll probably be fine as long as you take proper care of it, and sometimes it won't bother you at all, but sometimes it'll flare up and get really bad if you don't catch it in the early stages.

Then there are the variants. Allergic asthma is when the asthma is triggered by an allergic reaction, usually pollen.

Exercise-induced asthma is when the asthma is triggered by physical activity. Exercise triggers asthma in most asthmatics, but some people only have asthma symptoms during exercise. (For an alternative for what could cause that, go down two paragraphs.)

According to Web.MD, there's also cough-variant asthma when the coughing is the primary symptom, not the wheezing. But even that site's description says the triggers are usually exercise or or respiratory infections. So it seems like a fancy way of saying "Some asthmatics have more of the coughing symptom than the wheezing symptom" to me. Any of my readers know more than that?

One "variant" I am familiar with is "airway constriction disorder" or "seasonal asthma", which is how a doctor might describe "You're having trouble breathing, but I'm not sure about what's causing it, so I'm not comfortable saddling you with an asthma diagnosis." A magnesium deficiency can cause chest constriction. Fix the deficiency, and the breathing trouble goes away. I learned that one from experience.

Why did I specify that the "airway constriction disorder" could cause exercise-only asthma? Because magnesium is a required electrolyte for your body. When you exercise, you excrete magnesium and other electrolytes like potassium in your sweat.

Now, go check the magnesium content of your favorite sports drink.

It probably doesn't have any. This can kill you.*

Don't believe me? Look up "sudden cardiac death." Even folks more inclined to blame aspartame and other food additives admit that low magnesium is one of the causes.

Asthma has potential for conflict, even as a factor in relationships. Maybe the hero in that YA novel doesn't want to admit he has asthma, so he forces himself to keep up with the track team to his own detriment—or maybe he takes good care of his "asthma", but his actual problem is a magnesium deficiency that causes a seizure on the track. Maybe the girl in that romance novel thinks the non-asthmatic guy's making up his trouble breathing to manipulate her into feeling sorry for him, not realizing he does have the muscular constriction of a magnesium deficiency.

Possibilities, possibilities.

What's your favorite example of an asthmatic character or an asthmatic condition adding conflict to a story? If you're a writer, have you written any stories with asthmatic characters?


I'm not a doctor or anything, but I've read about this magnesium issue enough and heard about it from doctors I trust.

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