Difficulty breathing is grim, and for doctors, heartbreaking to see. Therefore, it is immensely satisfying to be able to help a patient who is gasping for breath. Let’s examine four scenarios that make it more difficult for people to breathe.
1. Asthma is a condition caused by spasms in the airways, tubes leading from the windpipe (trachea) to the air sacks in the lungs, causing difficulty in breathing. It is probably provoked by exposure to environmental substances that induce an allergic or hypersensitive reaction, and it can be very dramatic and terrifying for a lay person to see. The word originates from Latin (asma) or Greek (asthma/azein), meaning to “breathe hard.”
Whenever I take someone flying, I ask if they have any medical condition that might arise during flight such as angina, epilepsy, or asthma—a pilot does not want to have to focus on a sick passenger during an ILS approach in instrument conditions. However, those folks living with the condition tend to be very well schooled in using their inhalers and other medications; other than being aware that this might be an issue, and ensuring that they have their medications in the cockpit, there is little you need to do.
If you have a child with asthma, or know someone who does, I heartily recommend you obtain a copy of Your child’s asthma: A guide for parents (ISBN: 978-09-8593-321-0), authored by my good friend Dr. John Hunt, a physician who has made dealing with this condition his life’s work. Not only is his knowledge of the topic encyclopedic, but Hunt also possesses a native common sense and ability to communicate; he is a fine doctor. It would be a gift in the best sense of the word.
2. When I wrote an article for AOPA Pilot about smoking, I opened with a statement that I fully expected few people to read it as pilots were clearly too smart to be smokers. I did not dwell on the well-known damage smoking does to people—lung and other cancers, heart and peripheral vascular disease, chronic lung damage, impotence, and more; instead, I focused on means to stop smoking. I was astonished as to how many smoking pilots contacted me asking for help. So there is still a need. If you smoke, stop, now, please. If you have friends or loved ones who smoke, beg them to stop and avoid their presence when they do smoke. A while back I accepted an offer from a doctor friend to go flying in his Cessna 152. As he fired up the trusty engine I was astonished to see him fire up a cigarette. I told him this did not work for me on so many levels and exited stage right.
3. When cold and flu are prevalent, those of you who are Type A personalities (pretty much every pilot I know!) dismiss the idea of resting up if a bit under the weather. Why? We want to be on top of the weather. This is daft for a whole host of reasons. First, if you are at all unwell you should not be flying—you need every single ounce of concentration, intellect, and skill to pilot an aircraft, and if you are busy coughing up chunks of lung, you have no business being in the left seat. Additionally, you have no business being in the right, or any other seat, because you are infectious—and I am not talking about your personality right now! Keep your germs to yourself, stay at home, and go to bed! Finally, many of the over-the-counter medications for respiratory infections contain substances that cause drowsiness and are banned for use by pilots!
4. Just as it is apparent I need to harp about smoking, there is another topic that makes me feel like a broken record: using oxygen in flight. Not a week goes by that I do not have a dialogue with someone who tells me it is not necessary. I don’t know about you, but I breathe oxygen every day when not flying and when airborne I don’t want to cheat myself out of my favorite gas! Use oxygen liberally, it will do you no harm, is inexpensive, and just may save your life.