Battling Asthma in Prison

By Gregory J. Marcinski, EMT-P (ret)

From PHN Issue 26, Fall 2015

If you’re suffering from asthma, you’re not alone. More than 18 million American adults have asthma, and thousands go to the emergency room every day because of it. In prison, it can be a bit more difficult to be seen by medical staff, so I’ll discuss a few things that we can do on our own to help preserve our own health.

At first, symptoms can be subtle, such as breathlessness, coughing or wheezing. However, asthma can rapidly grow dangerous.


Asthma is a lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe properly. Asthma causes a person’s airways to undergo changes when exposed to allergens (i.e. pollen, mold, dust, dander, mites) or other environmental triggers (i.e. cigarette smoke, cold air, and high humidity). These changes in the airway can cause coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.


Although there is no cure as of yet, there are some things that you can include in your diet that might help reduce the number of attacks you may have.

  • Flavonoids are an antioxidant that may help protect your airways. You can find flavonoids in foods such as onions, apples, blueberries and grapes.
  • Fish Oil (Omega-3 fatty acids) may help reduce reactions to allergens. On top of the many other benefits that Omega-3s bring, they may also help reduce the frequency of your asthma attacks. But they shouldn’t be taken by people who have aspirin-induced asthma or those who take a blood thinner, such as warfarin.
  • Magnesium and Vitamin C have shown improvements in lung function. Magnesium helps reduce the adverse reactions of your bronchial passages and can be found in foods such as green vegetables, nuts, whole grain cereals, milk and seafood. Vitamin C has a mild antihistamine effect and can be found in such foods as citrus fruits (orange, grapefruit, etc.), broccoli, collards, bell peppers and cabbage. If your commissary sells a multi-vitamin, this can be a helpful supplement.


The first thing you want to do in the case of an asthma attack is to sit down and use your prescribed rescue inhaler as directed by your physician. In the event that you do not have the inhaler on you, you can try the following to help you get through it.

You will want to sit down on a chair or on the floor and try to breathe slow and steady. Try to take deep belly breaths and keep calm. It’s understandable that an asthma attack will make you anxious, but this will only make your breathing worse. Try to stay calm and keep your breathing under control. If you find that you are having trouble walking and talking due to shortness of breath, or your lips or fingernails are blue, this is a medical emergency, and you should seek immediate medical attention.

Finally, caffeine can cause the bronchial passages to dilate (open up), which will allow you to be able to breathe easier. You’re going to want to ingest approximately the amount of caffeine which can be found in the following items*:

8 oz. brewed coffee
12 oz. instant coffee
3-4 tea bags
2 colas, 24 oz.

* Caffeine amount will vary by individual product.


Although there is no cure, asthma can be controlled. Always follow your physician’s instructions, and remember to keep your rescue inhaler with you at all times. Follow these easy steps, and you will be in
more control of your own health.

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