Catherine L Breathing Better with Asthma

"Since taking biologics, I’ve not had to call the office about breathing problems once.”

New drugs and self-care can help people with asthma have a better quality of life.

For the majority of people with asthma, common treatments, such as corticosteroid inhalers, work just fine to help them keep healthy and active.

Alan Burghauser, MD
Alan Burghauser, MD

However, five to 10 percent of people with asthma need types of steroids that are much stronger and can have significant side effects.

“For quite some time, strong oral steroids—taken by mouth—were the only choice for some patients,” says Alan Burghauser, MD, a pulmonologist (lung specialist) who practices at RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group in Bayonne.

In contrast to inhaled steroids, which go directly into the lungs, oral steroids are digested and flow through the bloodstream to affect the entire body. Side effects can range from brittle bone disease (osteoporosis) to cataracts, weight gain, infections, and even diabetes.

Now, a new and promising class of medicines for asthma is making a dramatic difference for the better in patients’ lives.

Known as biologics, these man-made drugs are injected and work by targeting highly specific blood cells and even molecules that cause inflammation related to asthma.

Most exciting, instead of only controlling symptoms, the five different types of biologics now available work to stop the causes of the inflammation before signs of asthma develop.

“For one particular type of biologic, a single dose can reduce the cells that cause the problems by 98 percent,” Dr. Burghauser says. “Those results are amazing.”

A Success Story

“I’ve had asthma since childhood, and for years, I needed steroids to control it,” says Catherine Long, 88, of Bayonne. With Dr. Burghauser as her pulmonologist for an impressive 40 years, she’s been successful at avoiding the most serious asthma attacks.

However, the retired nurse was still concerned with potential bone loss and other side effects from steroids over time. She was delighted last spring when Dr. Burghauser spoke with her about the new treatment.

“I began getting biologics about 18 months ago, and it’s been just wonderful,” Catherine says. “Before, when I was taking steroids, I would occasionally have breathing problems and have to call the office for care. But since taking biologics, I’ve not had to call the office about breathing problems once.”

Some biologics have significant side effects, including cancer risk, Dr. Burghauser says, although specialists now have information that can help them determine the benefits and risks for individuals.

Another potential downside of these new drugs is their cost, which can run thousands of dollars a year and often aren’t fully covered by insurance, he says.

Still, Dr. Burghauser remains encouraged by progress in treating asthma.

“When I started my practice, inhalers weren’t even yet an option for our patients with asthma,” Dr. Burghauser says. “Now we are using biologics. These advances are a story of invention, and for my patients, it’s exciting to see.”

Taking Control of Your Asthma

Asthma causes changes in the airways that lead from the mouth to the lungs, making it hard to breathe. Up to eight out of every 100 people in the U.S. have asthma. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to manage it.

“With a little guidance from your doctor, most people can take charge of their own asthma care,” says Dr. Burghauser. He shares these tips to sidestep symptoms:

  • Know your asthma triggers and avoid them. Cold air, dust and smoke are common triggers. “Wear a hat and keep a scarf over your mouth when it’s cold,” Dr. Burghauser says.
  • Talk to your doctor about your medicines. “Medicines are changing, and we now have new ones for severe asthma,” he says. “Your doctor will have the latest treatments to offer you.” Understand your medications and be sure to keep your appointments. 
  • Take precautions for your overall health. Get good sleep, get your flu shot, wash hands often, avoid crowds and avoid people who are sick. “Wear a mask, too,” he says.
  • Exercise. This gets more blood and oxygen to the lungs and throughout the body. Work with your doctor to find the best way to enjoy your activities.

To find a specialist in pulmonology or another specialty at RWJBarnabas Health at Bayonne at 519 Broadway, call (888) 724-7123 or visit Find a Doctor