The good news is that many asthma medications work quite well.
But if the roughly 13 percent of Pittsburghers with asthma aren't taking their medications properly -- or aren't aware of other information that will help them control their asthma -- they will continue to struggle with breathing problems.
"We're really trying to raise awareness here that we do have poorly controlled asthma here compared to the rest of the country," said Deborah Gentile, director of research for the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at the Allegheny Health Network.
That was one theme of the third annual regional asthma summit Friday at Allegheny General Hospital. The conference, "The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma in our Community," convened about 100 attendees to hear both local and national experts discuss the most current findings on asthma causes, treatment and prevention.
About 13 to 14 percent of Pittsburghers suffer from asthma, compared with 8 to 10 percent of people nationwide.
"We have very good medications to control asthma, but the challenge is in getting patients to take those medications," said Dr. Gentile, who organized the conference. "People here with asthma tend to think it's OK, that you should be getting sick, that you should be going to the ER, but that really isn't the case nationally."
By one measure, asthma patients in Pittsburgh visit the emergency room about twice as often as patients in Philadelphia, Dr. Gentile said.
That is due in part to innovative public health education programs in Philadelphia that reinforce what is necessary to keep asthma under control. Otherwise, patients might take their medication for a period of days or weeks until they feel better and then stop doing so, Dr. Gentile said, not realizing they have a chronic condition that must be treated daily.
In one such Philadelphia program, parents and undergraduate students were trained to lead workshops on asthma education for adults and youths in the community. Perhaps because the information was coming from their peers, the information on asthma seemed to stick, even a year later, said Tara Bryant-Stephens, director and founder of the Community Asthma Prevention Program at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Dr. Bryant-Stephens also stressed the importance of health literacy, noting that patients who read at elementary school levels are less likely to use their medication as directed.
The conference also spotlighted the Breathmobile, a mobile asthma clinic that started in Los Angeles and has spread to other cities. There are plans to bring a Breathmobile to Pittsburgh, Dr. Gentile said.
Other areas explored by the conference included air pollution, specifically from wood smoke. Burning wood -- from home fireplaces, wood stoves, fire pits, industrial byproducts and as a commercial heating source -- can be significant contributor to air pollution.
Dr. Gentile used to have a backyard fire pit, she said, but got rid of it after she learned about wood smoke as a contributor to asthma.
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.