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Three things you should know about asthma: it affects more women than men; it hits women harder than men; and some medications may hurt more than they heal. Oh, another thing. It can go undiagnosed until it’s too late. Diane Peters reports

By Diane Peters
First published in Chatelaine’s March 2000 issue.
©Diane Peters

see also: Breathless | Asthma drugs

Maria Teresa Campoli lived with undiagnosed asthma for eight years. Her doctor assumed she had bronchitis and prescribed rounds of antibiotics. As her symptoms worsened, she began to stay indoors in cold and humid weather. By her mid-30s, she’d been forced to give up some of her favourite activities–gardening and singing.

Soon after she finally saw a specialist, Campoli suffered an asthma attack that shook her with coughing so severe she couldn’t walk through the front doors of the hospital (two nurses carried her in). “I thought I would die,” she recalls. Had she not gone to the emergency room that day, she very well could have. Campoli spent three days in the hospital struggling to breathe, three weeks at home in bed recuperating and then seven years working with an asthma specialist to get the disease under control, during which time she was still having frequent attacks. Her respiratory system has been irreparably damaged by years of untreated illness and she still can’t sing as she used to–she’s now an alto, not the soaring soprano she once was.

Had she been diagnosed earlier, her asthma would never have progressed to such a severe state and her life wouldn’t have changed a bit. Despite all Campoli’s classic signs–breathing and coughing struggles–her doctors hadn’t even considered asthma all those years she was gasping for breath. She just didn’t fit the profile because asthma is still considered a childhood illness that affects mainly boys. In fact, more women than men have asthma–8.5 per cent of Canadian women, compared to 7.2 per cent of men. But women’s symptoms develop later in life than men’s do–sometimes not until well into adulthood.

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