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That awkward conversation about asthma, that happens at work

That Awkward Conversation About Asthma That Happens at Work

I had an awkward conversation with a colleague the other day. As seems typical with winter, it is cold and flu season. There was a flu that went around the office that was nicknamed the “office plague”. It took the majority of the office out.

It turns out this colleague caught it from one of their kids, and it took most of their family out during the holidays. They did have a very alarming cough, and she seemed to be experiencing a residual cough when she came back to the office. I want to reiterate that if you are sick, please do not come to the office and make other people sick.

If you are sick, do not come to work

They were convinced that they were significantly past the contagious period. She probably was, however, I have an immune system that loves to catch pretty much everything that it comes in contact with. I would have been okay with this if they chose not to go to my desk for a meeting.

I was surprised when she told me that her underlying asthma lead to bronchitis. I think the science of that statement needs some clarification. I believe that their cold led to acute bronchitis and that acute bronchitis, which has similar symptoms to asthma, can easily be misinterpreted as asthma. I will leave that science to medical professionals.

The difference between asthma and bronchitis

A quick recap:

Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which the airways narrow, swell and produce excess mucus.1

Often developing from a cold or other respiratory infection, acute bronchitis is very common. Bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the airways. Symptoms may include the production of excess mucus.2

Acute bronchitis, also called a chest cold, usually improves within a week to 10 days without lasting effects, although a cough may linger for weeks.2

Asthma awareness vs holding off

One day, I believe that they told me about their underlying asthma on at least four separate occasions. I never considered myself an asthma snob, but have I become one? I find my asthma pretty personal. I have had to fight with my asthma, fight for it, and my colleague did not seem to understand the struggle. Asthma can certainly be annoying, and I appreciate what they were going through, as I have been there.

Is it my role to educate others about asthma?

I haven’t shared that I am a severe asthmatic with my colleague, but I wanted to correct them on their understanding of asthma a couple times, especially when they were telling me about their symptoms and how “they had to use their” puffers. My thoughts was, “But do you not use a controller every day?” It is my understanding that they do not know or understand the vast phenotypes of asthma that exist.

I found the conversation to be very frustrating to me. Was it my role to educate them? Could I do this without revealing my asthma status and that my daily impacts of asthma were significant? I did not want to share with this person any knowledge about how asthma impacts my ability to work. After all this, I decided to acknowledge that they were being affected by asthma symptoms due to illness and leave it at that.

I wanted to call them out for being misinformed, but I didn’t feel that was the right approach. I know that I knew very little at the onset of my diagnosis, plus, it isn’t nice to be an asthma jerk. I asked a fellow asthma patient/advocate what their thoughts were and if this would be a well-received teachable moment?

The consensus was that my explanation of phenotypes or that others’ experiences with asthma may be very different than what she is experiencing and would fall on deaf ears. It was better just to let the conversation drop.

Have you ever had an awkward work discussion about living with asthma? How did you handle it?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Mayo Clinic. Asthma. Published September 13, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2019.
  2. Mayo Clinic. Bronchitis. Published April 11, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2019.


  • JenColeman
    1 year ago

    I have taken a different approach at work since I was recently out for 3 weeks since a coworker came to work sick and I caught it. I have been wearing masks this week because my boss is at work sick. She has been cool with it because she doesn’t want me to be out again. I am very open with everyone to let them know how severe my asthma is and I can’t afford to pick up slightest runny nose. A lot of people just don’t get it even though I stress how dangerous it is for me.

  • Lyn Harper, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi JenColeman – I think your approach is great! It’s not as uncommon as it used to be to see people in public (or the workplace) to be wearing masks. If only the people that were sick would wear them…

    Even though I get strange looks, I sometimes will wear one when I fly. I’d rather hear the comments and get the looks than get sick.

    I’m glad you’ve found a way to deal with it at your workplace. I hope people will become more sensitive to how important it is.

    Lyn (site moderator)

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi robbym and thanks for this post. It’s understandable how you are feeling. It’s always commendable to be thinking of those around you. As to what will work best (for you) is a very individual decision. As you probably are aware, everyone’s condition is different and treatment can vary from patient to patient. You will have to determine what works best for you and the impact you feel it will have on those around you. What do you think? Leon (site moderator)

  • robbym
    1 year ago

    I have worn a cartridge respirator to mow the back lawn and though I felt silly, with a washing routine it did allow me to do the work without asthma attacks. I’ve thought about wearing it to work but don’t want to frighten anyone or comfort and explain why to so many people. Do you find smaller more discrete face masks work as well? If I could find a way to make it work in a socially acceptable way this could solve a lot of problems for me.

  • aaustin871
    1 year ago

    Hi, Robyn thank you for your input . I do believe you handled that conversation well with the person that was sick in your office . I also have say how much I appreciate your story and . I myself have severe neutrophilic asthma . I don’t know if you are familierwith this type of asthma but it is a 10-15 percent of the population who have it . It is the most severe type you can have but nothing helps it get better . You are on the max amount of medications and they work only minimally . I recently was sick on and off for six months with it and now steroids don’t even work for me anymore . If I have an acute attack , become sick or am exacerbated by something I have to be immediately hospitalized for observation. I totally understand what severe asthma is and how difficult it is when your immune system likes all of those great germs .thank you for your input … Aimee

  • robbym
    1 year ago

    It is validating to read about experiences I have had with asthma. Unfortunately, when I have had this conversation it was related to an accommodation need. Regardless of the law, my experience has been that employers often prefer to let “problematic” employees go rather than provide accommodations.

    I have a severe form of eosinophilic asthma that has cost me many jobs, relationships and even some basic rights and freedoms. The presence of a furry animal is an automatic denial of access for me. Sometimes I feel like I have to live in a bubble just so I can breathe. It can be a lonely and isolated experience. Knowing that there are others makes it feel more normal and feel less isolating.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi robbym and thanks for your post. We hear you and understand how important it is when our community members are able to share similar experiences. As you said, it does make one feel much less alone to know others are going through the same thing. We appreciate your candor. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • robbym
    1 year ago

    I’ve had severe asthma since birth but only recently learned about asthma phenotypes. Is this a new development in medicine?

    I went through a lot of medical patient training to learn how to live with my asthma back in the 1980’s and think this new understanding and biological treatments would have made a real difference back then.

    I recently started on Nucala and am feeling better than I have in years. I really like being able to breathe clearly. The social allergen avoidances are still a reality that’s problematic but I’m feeling hopeful for the first time in many years. I think education and awareness would go a long to making the world more fully accessible for many asthmatics like me. Thank you for this resource it really helps.

  • Shellzoo
    1 year ago

    I think an easy “Tell me about your asthma.” Would open up conversation and lead to opportunities for education.

  • krishwaecosse
    1 year ago

    What I find interesting is that your colleague described her asthma as “underlying asthma”. I might have said, “oh you’re one of the lucky ones then who is symptom free most of the time” and then see if the conversation continued. I feel most people (even those with underlying asthma) aren’t aware that asthma symptoms can be a daily occurrence for many rather than their experience of infrequent asthmatic episodes.

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