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Surgery, Breathing and Asthma

I had surgery last month, but before I did, I had a meeting with my surgeon. She wanted to know my full medical history and if I had any chronic medical problems. Diabetes? Asthma? Kidney problems? Heart problems?

Of course, I had to stop her when she got to asthma!

Then she started asking how severe my asthma is, what medications I take (daily controller? or just rescue inhaler?) She wanted to make sure I was “in control” and asked if I had seen Asthma Doc lately? I assured her that I’m a Certified Asthma Educator, so I know how to take care of my asthma. She seemed to relax a little after that.

Then Surgery Nurse called a few days before surgery to review my medications. She wanted to know if me or anyone in my family had a bad reaction to anesthesia. She also wanted to know about my asthma medications. She asked me to bring my rescue inhaler to the hospital. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “I never leave home without it!”

After I hung up the phone with Surgery Nurse, I thought about a few things I have noticed about surgery, breathing and asthma.

My oxygen level drops. 

I have had good and bad anesthesiologists (the guys that “put you to sleep” for surgery.) Sometimes I wake up and my throat feels fine. Other times, I wake up and my throat is really sore from having a tube down my throat to help me breathe during surgery. For some reason, this makes my oxygen level drop. Usually, I wake up in the recovery room when I hear “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!” Which is the oxygen monitor going off because my oxygen level is too low. And then the nurse leaning over me and saying, “Andrea! Breathe, breathe!”

I usually tell my Surgery Nurse that my oxygen level always drops after surgery and to PLEASE watch out for that. I also have a habit of pulling my oxygen off (when it should be kept on – because the machine is beeping due to low oxygen.) So I will also ask her to put my oxygen mask back on if I pull it off when I’m groggy.

It’s hard to take deep breaths afterwards.

My lungs felt worse on this surgery than my last surgery a few years ago, and that had me worried. The last thing I would need is to develop pneumonia. Especially when part of my body is being held together with stitches, I don’t want to start coughing and pull the surgery site open.

I was already sitting upright, which helps me breathe easier. But I knew I needed something to expand my lungs and help me breathe deep. I used my Incentive Spirometer to help expand my lungs. You can watch a video here to see how it works. I had to take it slow and easy and not push myself.

I also used my nebulizer to help open up my airways.

I’m recovered and back at work, and my lungs are happy again.

Has anyone else had a tough time with surgery, breathing and asthma?

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.


  • jcmusiclover
    1 year ago

    I’ve had surgery several times since being diagnosed. The first time, I was sure I wouldn’t wake up. But I did!
    The key, for me, is to tell the anesthesia person to keep me on albuterol DURING surgery. I also tell them to please leave the tube in a few minutes longer than others so I can wake up a bit more and to put me on O2. I generally don’t need that for long but it helps me.
    I can’t say every doc was happy to get instructions from me but I have said these things have made things safer for me, which makes their jobs easier for them.
    Made it thru 3 surgeries with no asthma issues. Good luck wishes sent to all asthmatics.

  • Christine.Fitzpatrick moderator
    1 year ago

    Thank you for sharing your experience and what has worked for you, @jcmusiclover. It is great you have found what helps you when having surgery and it is so important to communicate that to your team of doctors. We appreciate you being a part of the community and sharing your support! Best, Christine, Team Member

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi jcmusiclover and thanks for your post. As Christine has said – it’s always best to be your own best self advocate. You know yourself (and your asthma) best – certainly more than the surgeon and anesthesiologist, who are there for your surgical procedure, more than anything! With you providing them the insight to your condition, it no doubt improves the post operative recovery period immensely! I’m sure in their own way, they’re appreciative of your input. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • Patti Henry
    1 year ago

    I was diagnosed with asthma in about 2005, I was in my late
    40s. In the beginning it was a minor blip for me. I used a rescue inhaler infrequently, did not take any daily meds and had only one asthma attack over the course of 7-8 years. In 2013 I was diagnosed with lung cancer (adenocarcinoma).
    I was lucky. It was found very early. I needed surgery to remove the upper lobe of my left lung. Because I had asthma and I was losing a considerable part of my breathing capacity and I was having thoracic surgery my surgeon was extremely cautious. I had several breathing tests along with all the other tests associated with a major surgery. I passed the breathing tests with flying colors. My surgeon was impressed with my respiratory health and was confident that I would not even notice the loss of the upper lobe of my lung. I handled the surgery well, was up and walking (with lots of equipment and tubes and assistance) the next day. I was in the hospital for 5 days.
    Within 3-4 days of being home and recuperating I started to notice that I was short of breath. Then I had an asthma attack. I could not recover with my rescue inhaler. I was rushed to the hospital and treated with steroids, and multiple breathing treatments. We thought it was a fluke. It was not!! Asthma now is a daily issue and while I am managing it well, it impacts my life every single day. The surgery and asthma somehow triggered several dormant issues I didn’t even know I had. My doctors are amazing and I am very lucky to have such expert care. They say I will be fine if I ever need surgery again because they now know I have an “angry” airway.
    Strangely enough, many years ago I had thyroid cancer. I had surgery for that as well. It is now believed that my vocal chords may have been insignificantly damaged back then and now after so many asthma attacks/exacerbations, the constant coughing etc., my vocal chords now spasam and close, which means I stop breathing. So I have two very annoying parts of my anatomy that make me stop breathing. Big picture, I’m lucky to be alive. Asthma has turned my life upside down but I’m in good hands, am managing and living my life.
    I believe that when we are in capable hands, we do our homework, advocate for ourselves, and do all we can to live a healthy life we have done all we can to have positive experiences even when we are facing challenging health issues.
    So, yes, I have breathing/asthma issues when I have surgery. It is very helpful to know that someone else out there has also had an issue. Thanks for bringing up that topic.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi pch5010 and thanks for sharing your extensive and detailed history with asthma, cancer, surgery and your other medical issues in such an open manner. We’re appreciative of your experience. As you can see from other member’s stories, you are definitely not alone! We’re glad to have you as a vital member of our online community. Wishing you the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Shellzoo
    1 year ago

    At least now I know I have asthma and my health care team can be better prepared if I have surgery in the future.

  • Shellzoo
    1 year ago

    Prior to knowing I had asthma although now I can recall some attacks I basically ignored, I had surgery to remove my gallbladder. I had the ding ding ding from desaturating into the high 80s, being told to breath, a mask thrown on me that I immediately threw off and feeling short of breath, tight and out of breath from normal activities for a few weeks afterwards. I did have a reaction to the pain medication I was given but after reading this, I would not be surprised if it was also related to asthma. I wish I could tell my younger self that I should have advocated for myself and had it checked out then but I suffered through. It seems too when you see multiple doctors, they are not always up to date on your health concerns. Better communication between health care providers would be very helpful.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Shellzoo and thanks for your post. It’s interesting to note the similarities between you post surgical asthma experiences and those of the author, Andrea Jensen. This made an interesting read!
    Leon (site moderator)

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