One of football's great running backs, Jerome Abram Bettis was famed for shaking off bone-rattling tackles as he flattened players on his way to the end zone. But he's quick to say that "no football player ever hit me as hard as asthma."
Bettis gained more than 13,000 yards and scored 91 touchdowns for the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. Known as "The Bus," he helped the Steelers win the 2006 Super Bowl.
Yet asthma nearly sank his career before it started.
"I was 14 years old and playing in a high school football game in Detroit one afternoon," he recalls, "when I had an asthma attack that was so bad I actually passed out on the field. They rushed me to the hospital, and the doctors who treated me explained that I was struggling with severe asthma.
"They also told me and my mother that I was going to have to learn how to control my attacks better if I wanted to continue playing high school football. I took that lesson to heart, and I've worked very hard over the years at doing all the things I need to do to keep my asthma under control."
Bettis, 35, went on to be a star running back for the University of Notre Dame. In 1993, he joined the National Football League as a Rams first-round draft pick. He retired from football in 2006. Today, he lives in a Pittsburgh suburb.
Leads by example
"I played pro football for 13 years, so I guess I'm living proof that people with asthma can learn to manage it effectively, and then go on to lead healthy, vigorous lives," he says.
Asthma affects nearly 20 million Americans. In this chronic ailment, triggers such as pet dander, mold, and pollution can inflame, swell, and tighten airways. Uncontrolled asthma can lead to wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and even death.
Attacks blamed on uncontrolled asthma send nearly 2 million Americans to emergency rooms each year. More than 4,000 die. But most people can control their asthma most of the time.
If you have asthma, Bettis says, good control hinges on learning how bad your symptoms are and how often they occur. That helps you prepare in advance to cope with an attack.
Bettis suggests you take the Asthma Control Test (ACT). This simple, five-question tool lets patients "score" how well they control their attacks.
Anyone age 12 or older who has asthma can take the ACT, which is endorsed by the American Lung Association. The results help patients and their doctors look for ways to limit and manage symptoms. You might need to get rid of such triggers as cigarette smoke or household dust, for example. Or you might need an inhaler to provide fast-acting drugs such as albuterol.
Tight control important
When you take steps to manage your asthma, your comfort and safety improve.
"In recent years, there's been a great deal of medical research to show that patients who don't have their asthma under control run a much higher risk of having bad attacks," says Michael X. Schatz, M.D., a past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Such attacks could send you to the emergency room.
"To better manage such attacks when they happen, I recommend that patients and their physicians together come up with a treatment plan that will give the patient better control of his or her asthma, day in and day out. That way, the patient will be well-prepared for such attacks in advance."
How can you tell your asthma control is slipping? Dr. Schatz suggests you look for these signs and discuss them with a health care provider:
A lot of asthma symptoms or attacks
Using a fast-acting inhaler more than twice a week to treat sudden symptoms
Waking up at night with asthma symptoms
Missing school or work due to asthma
Finding that you must cut back on activities because of asthma
Emergency room visits or hospitalizations due to asthma attacks