Flying & Asthma

The Flying Trilobite already receives a lot of pageviews due to a steady stream of people searching about being an asthmatic and flying (in an airplane, I presume). I thought it may be somewhat useful for me to therefore pen a post on the subject. The reason so many asthma-sufferers find this blog, I believe is because of the post I did of a drawing called, Asthma Incubus back in May of 2007.

If you are reading this blog for the first time, then welcome! Drop in for the asthma, stay for some paintings inspired by the awe of modern science. I am an artist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Please don't be frightened by the atheism. With atheism comes a healthy dose of skepticism, which you will need if you are suffering from asthma and don't know where to turn next. And anyway, the way I see it, when it comes to asthma relief, it just means instead of thanking god(s), I thank the fine scientists, pharmacists and chemists that have helped save more lives than prayer ever has.

Without skepticism someone may try to wave their hands over you or ask you to carry a small doll to cure your asthma, and while both could be entertaining, you and I both know it's hard to laugh when your lungs feel like they weigh 200 pounds and are made out of bags of rusty harmonicas.

So to begin: a caveat, a warning, a caution. I am an artist, not a medical respirologist. If you are looking for relief from your wheezy lungs, I strongly, mightily urge you to seek out a "Western" medically-trained respirologist and asthma clinic that keeps up on the latest advances in drugs to ease your lungs back into contributing members of your chest cavity. All I will share in this blog are anecdotes, individual stories about asthma, which is not how you should make a diagnosis! Medicines and remedies using double-blind, empirical and statistical trials are the ones to trust. Your respirologist will know which ones. I would also suggest checking out The Asthma Society of Canada for some up-to-date "'evidence-based', market-tested, " information on a regular basis.

Also to begin: some reassurance. I am a skeptic, and I will not try to sell you on the idea of water-pills, drinking urine, homeopathy, acupuncture, taking something just because it is "all-natural", or rearranging mythical chakras. If people seriously think they are helping you with this advice, I would strongly advise you to laugh, ask them to explain further, laugh some more, and do nothing they tell you to treat your asthma. If you are unsure of whether something someone suggests is pure nonsense or not, look for information that has piles of trustworthy studies behind it. To get you started, check out The Skeptic's Dictionary, particularly under "Alternative Medicine".

Oh, and get your children vaccinated too. It doesn't cause asthma, and will save their lives.

So, flying with asthma.

I have flown a number of times in my life so far, probably about 8 trips there and back again. As I said, I live in Toronto, and I have flown as far away as Aruba and Calgary, some 6 or 7 hours at a stretch. I have taken numerous shorter flights from Toronto to Montreal on a variety of airlines; Air Canada, Westjet and Porter, small planes and large ones.

My asthma has been diagnosed as "brittle", though that seemed to be a mistake; I have never fallen unconscious, even in my worst heart-pounding, suffocating moments. The most recent diagnosis was "moderate persistent asthma".

I haven't had any trouble flying with asthma. Whew! I know, all this preamble to find out you should be okay! Modern planes are pressurised so the air will not be thin as you fly up to 35'000 feet. A smaller plane, you may feel light-headed I guess. I have hiked in the Blue Mountains of Virginia before up to 4'000 feet, and I could still breathe and carry a 60 pound backpack.

Flying in a plane is exciting, and I am not jaded by the experience yet. So, sometimes I will need to take a puffer during the duration of the flight, but ask your doctor, or use your own experiences to see if this is necessary. For myself, I do not experience any sudden tightening of the chest, and I suspect I may take it in those moments larger as a psychological comfort. Perhaps the next time I fly I'll skip it if I can and see how it goes.

Most puffers are pressurised canisters, and there seem to be no negative effects on these in a plane. They do not explode or leak. Again, a pressurised cabin would give the canister a steady barometric pressure, and it will function as though you are on the ground. Take your medications in-flight with you in your carry-on luggage. Be comfortable, and relax. Get a window seat and enjoy the flight.

Currently, I take two medications to treat my asthma. One is preventative, and another for fast relief in moments of distress. A while ago, I switched away from a ventolin inhaler to Airomir, and I find I am sleeping better at night. I recommend it. (Ask your doctor!) My wife also informs me that I am not jerking my full body in my sleep anymore the way I used to once a night. There are a lot of options on the market, and you should work with your respirologist to see what works for you. A new medication, which I will not name, gave me some anxiety attacks when in combination with another puffer. My doc said it happens in a small samples of patients, about 5% of cases. So I switched.

I hope this has been helpful. Asthma is manageable, and sufferers have many options to help nowadays. If, however, I am wrong and there is some folklore I do not know about and people are finding this blog to learn about flapping their arms like Icarus and flying while suffering some asthmatic-like effects afterward, I have only one response.

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All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.

In Strange Company:

I noticed while pursuing that vainest of pastimes, googling myself, that I was quoted on a site called I hadn't come across this online 'zine before, and it's...umm, weird. Or odd. Unusual. A little different, yes.

It seems to be a mixed bag. The subject matter is credulous; everything from 'giantology' and smoking chimpanzees to UFO's and the pterodactyl 'Thunderbird'. Then it shifts, and often is debunking what it finds, playing the skeptic. I've come rather late to this magazine, as's founder, Mark Chorvinsky, has passed away in recent years. Seems like an interesting guy.

It prompted me to look up the term, "Fortean". I had seen the Fortean Times on magazine racks, and thought it kind of New Age-hokey. It seems there is a bit of a poke-in-the-eye attitude toward scientists, mixed with a different sort of skepticism than you see in Skeptic magazine. A quote from Fortean founder Charles Fort (at right) on Wikipedia: "Now there are so many scientists who believe in dowsing, that the suspicion comes to me that it may be only a myth after all". The Skeptic's Dictionary, always one of my favourite places, has an entry on Charles Fort as well.

The quote from my blog was from my posting about palaeontologist Dong Zhiming educating some Chinese rural folk who believed dinosaur fossils were really medicinal dragon bones. It feels somewhat strange for a person like myself, trying to be rational and understanding the scientific method to be quoted on a site near articles on Bigfoot. But what I've read so far shows these journalists are showing a healthy dose of skepticism and tracking their sources, as wild as the claims are.

It's interesting that skepticism falls along a spectrum rather than a discrete definition. But perhaps that's a scientific simile.

Asthma Incubus

I suffer from asthma. Lots of people do. I grew into mine, and it worsened a bit since I got older. Over the years, I have received a lot of advice on possible remedies for this from people using anecdotal accounts of "alternative" medicine.

This pencil drawing is a self-portrait I did a few years ago, called Asthma Incubus. In part, it was inspired by Henry Fuseli's classic Nightmare, (below, complete with swooning woman). I have often thought of the fractal growth of both lung bronchioles and tree branches & roots as sharing a common feature of providing oxygen and sustaining life. I wanted to show how it felt to have a symbolic demonic presence clutching at my chest. An incubus was a folkloric creature that sat on people's chests and either caused paralysis or suffocation. As a side note, I was also blacklight-sensitive blonde when I drew this.

I used to work at a coffee shop in the Beach area (or "Beaches"...a point of contention with the locals) here in Toronto. It's geographically a great area: a boardwalk, lots of parks, some streets paved with red bricks. Both my parents grew up there. It also has much higher incidents of asthma than some other areas of the city. Now, the beachers are a strange bunch. A running joke about the area is that a beacher is a WASP, who jogs while smoking a cigarrette and has a dog. In my experience, an inordinate amount of them are beguiled by alternative medicines and New Age-y experiences.

One case that comes to mind was a typical day at the coffee shop. I pulled out one of my puffers, as it was smoggy. One of our customers, a great person, suggested I start using phosphorus to treat it. I replied, "Thanks, I can ask my doctor about it, ". The customer then said, "Well...western doctors don't always trust things, you know, they only like what the pharmaceutical companies tell them. Don't worry, phosphorus is all natural."

Even back in my early twenties, I was still not the skeptic I am today. However, this was my health! I replied, "Thanks, but I should check with my doctor. What if it reacts with my other medications? Besides, mercury is all-natural too, but it's still poison." He shook his head, and went to sit down while I made the latte.

Another painting, from the Symbolist era which has long fascinated me is Ferdinand Hodler's fin-de-siecle masterpiece of dread, Night.

I believe that the medical profession makes mistakes, and I also believe it is at it's most successful time in history. I began seeing a respirologist about 8 years ago, and my twice-annual trips to the emergency room have stopped. We have tried a number of medicines, and I am able to be more active and sleep better. I know my own case is of course, anecdotal by its very nature of being one isolated case, but alternative medicine could do some actual harm. I'll trust my western-trained doctor, thanks.

I find the site The Skeptic Dictionary to be a well informed site for people looking into whether a claim has the double-blind, empirical evidence to back it up. There's a lot of unproven nonsense making people money out there, mostly riding on the placebo effect. I was impressed with the award-winning high-school essay from the Alliance for Science competition about why we should choose doctors who understand evolution. It's an important point. Read the essay, it will give you pause. The fight to keep evolution in schools is not just a topic pertaining to dinosaurs and early humans. It matters right now, for your own health.