Why is it that Asthma is portrayed so... - Asthma UK communi...

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Why is it that Asthma is portrayed so awful in movies?


I am watching Hitch, and yesterday Goonies was on tv (I have the tv on for company while I clean my house), and both movies show characters who are weak, nervous, and geeky. The. They get confidence I. Themselves, and throw away their inhalers like they have grown personally, full of confidence. This is exactly why I don’t tell anyone I have asthma. I work in a hospital, and have seen co workers mention their asthma was bothering them, only to have staff roll their eyes. I have had a bad attack and everyone just worked around me, not offering any help at all. And I never ever talk about it or complain. I wish I could just take out my rescue at work (whenever 8 need it) and use it. I don’t. I either try to just keep busy and ignore it, or go to the bathroom to take something. Working in the emergency room, sometimes people come in with perfumes that set my allergies off. I don’t even know if this is just me...anyone else out there feel somewhat the same?

26 Replies

Hi Willow,

Not everyone, but I would imagine many of us have been through the same thing. I feel your pain. As a student, I never took the medihaler in front of my peers and having asthma made me feel weak - not like everyone else. I was embarrassed about it.

Regarding the media's idea that somehow it's in the mind or that you are a weak nervous person, it's frustrating and definitely perpetrates the myth that asthma is from anxiety and you're right, it makes one more careful about revealing that you are an asthmatic.

Even as an adult many friends and people I knew didn't know I had asthma as I would, as you do, put up with it and take the medication later. I'm not sure when - or even how - but I started to take it in front of people. I'm a primary school teacher and I started to use it in front of the class. At first they were amazed and then, like children do, they asked questions. I had a rotahaler which was different to the general medihaler, so I would take it out and show them how it worked. If I had new students and I had to take it in front of them, I would always explain it and show them how it worked. They were more interested in the workings of it then me taking it. I found that if I wasn't worried about taking it in front of them, then they weren't either.

If I have to take ventolin now in front of someone new, I say, "I just have to take some ventolin. I have asthma". It's now not a drama to me and people just accept it. Although if I can wait, I sometimes do.

It was difficult the first time I took it in front of others, but it gets easier so I would urge you to start. The people around you will get used to it and not even think about it.

Just realized that this next bit is a rant so please forgive me.

At first when I started taking it more in front of my friends, some of the "medical" ones would start to quizz me. Do you need it that much? Are you okay? But they got used to it.

Then you get the teachers/people/nurses/doctors who do see asthmatics as anxious "needing their guidance" to "snap out of it" or "calm down". "Don't work yourself up".

If you don't have your ventolin and you're struggling to take in the next breath, I really don't want my attention taken away from what I am doing by telling me how to breathe or worse telling me to "Stay calm". I am staying calm but I also have to concentrate and "No, I do not want to sit down". I am better standing. If I want to sit, I will sit.

I understand that it is their concern and their feeling of helplessness which causes them to want to help in some way which is why I'm not rude to them but sometimes having to answer when you are trying to breathe is difficult.

One good thing about having asthma - particularly in a hospital - is that you can relate and know how to help or recognize those who have it.


in reply to Tugun

I also hate being fussed at and interfered with when struggling. No, I'm not anxious but I also don't have the breath to talk to you and explain. Please leave me alone and don't fuss or explain something I actually know how to deal with (thankfully my colleagues were amazing with this). Also while I get you mean well, please don't push water on me when i'm coughing! Once ok but don't keep on. It doesn't help and I don't have breath etc to keep saying thank you but no. I need asthma drugs and I will take them if you give me space. (I got asked by a resp Dr in hospital recently if I take cough syrup for my cough. No I take asthma meds for it ... because it's asthma! Why am I explaining this to a resp Dr?!)

Also come across the odd healthcare professional who thinks they know it all because they have asthma. No, that doesn't mean you automatically know about mine, please stop. And having it is not a substitute for actually knowing about it as a clinician, Dr Resp Cons with scary lack of knowledge about asthma.

I hope your matter of fact approach helps the kids understand other children with asthma better too - I think it's great and hopefully seeing you do it will educate them better about what asthma is and how to act when someone has it. Though I always thought it was sad that the year 7 children with Samuel Linton (the boy who died a few years back at school) seemed to understand better than the adults at his school what to do. I would bet that school wasn't a great place to work as an asthmatic staff member either with that kind of attitude.

All of this!

in reply to Lysistrata


I had to look up Samuel Linton. What a tragedy. I'm Learning Support and last year I had a 7year old student come into my group panting. I asked him if he'd been running. No, it was asthma. No wheeze. His medicine was in his bag and I sent him off to get it. When I spoke to his teacher about it to tell her that he may need further medication, her response was that he wasn't allowed to keep it in his bag. It had to be in the office and as the school hadn't been informed then we weren't to give it to him. I tried explaining to her the importance of it and that not all asthmatics wheeze but she really didn't get it. Some people feel safe following bureaucratic dogma and never deviate from it even when it's sensible to do so. I rang the mother and explained the situation and the importance of having a medical certificate regarding the medication. Even so, the idea of a wheezing child having to walk to the office - which can be a long way away and sometimes up a hill or stairs - in order to get medication, makes me angry. In the end, the teacher kept it in the room.

Reminds me of the time I had to explain to an officious pharmacist why I needed more than one Ventolin. One in the car in case I forget or run out. One at home for the same reason and one on me.

in reply to Tugun

Ugh re the bureaucracy. I was thankfully allowed to have my inhaler on me in primary school - I have heard too many stories of teachers deciding children don't really need it, and I'm sure quite a few children might be reluctant to ask in front of the class even if they're always given it. Or as you say, being made to go to the office when struggling - I couldn't even make it to the kitchen at work sometimes when triggered!

In year 9 however they tried to say I needed to keep it in the office and ask for it. I was 13 and had been trusted with it at 8 - different school yes but still. My mum told them not to be ridiculous especially since exercise then was one of my main triggers so I especially would need it during PE which was some way from the office. They backed down but it was stupid to start with - you need it on you or at least close by and no gatekeeping by someone who thinks they know better.

I am so glad, for many many reasons, that I wasn't severe at school.

in reply to Lysistrata

Totally agree with you Lysistrata. It's good you had such a strong switched on Mum!

Oh yeah I have seen that kind of thing on TV and it really annoys me! Also totally unrealistic ideas about how asthma presents, how bad it is and how to fix it eg you see someone having an attack which is supposedly so bad they start to lose consciousness then they are given one neb and half an hour later are back at work.

Really? That was a medical show too - it really doesn't help when the reality is that if they were genuinely that bad they would need a lot more and wouldn't be just going back to work. If your colleagues, boss etc already don't understand how asthma can affect someone and tend to minimise it, that kind of thing isn't going to help (eg if someone needs time off work or can't just spring back to work if struggling).

I'm really lucky as though I'm freelance now, when I worked full time my colleagues and boss were much better informed than many (I think because of working with scientific and health data so they knew what it actually is), and would support in a helpful way without fussing, which I really appreciated.

In the media you also see the whole brown paper bag thing (dangerous for asthma and perpetuates the myth it is anxiety/panic). I feel even too many healthcare staff buy into the whole idea that asthma is the same as panic or that everyone with it is automatically anxious and will panic if they have an attack. Of course stress can be a trigger but not for everyone, and that's still triggering actual asthma not panic.

I have also seen the 'asthma is for kids and you grow out of it' in books grrr. I did read a book which did it well - the main character was actually someone with heart problems but she had a friend with severe asthma who I thought was very well portrayed.

Well, you won't be able to ignore it if you get a bad bout of asthma! To hell with what others think! Are their thoughts more important than your wellbeing? Yes, some perfumes set me off, but not all, and I never know which, or why!

Back in 69 I had hypnotherapy for my asthma, because the consultant thought my asthma may be related to anxiety and other causes brought on by a bad marriage and all that entails, but he found out it was not psychosomatic but actually over 400 allergy's, living on a farm, and a whole load of other things, like Dad having it and his parents. Like the other replys I too am fed up of consultants telling me to calm down and it will pass, ONLY WHEN I CAN GET MY BREATH, will it pass. I also wish I had a pound for every one of them who have said I take too much prednisolone. back in the day I was logging peak flows and noting how many times I took my Ventolin inhaler/tablets. I have even been a guinea pig for student doctors to listen to my chest, because their clever tutor doctor told them listening to the real thing was better than a video tape.

It just happened that I was watching (or that I had these shows playing while doing work around the house) and I noticed the way asthmatics were shown. I also watch Big Bang Theory sometimes and it makes me laugh every time Lenard gets excited, anxious, or uncertain about himself....he whips out his inhaler. Sometimes, it is even a punchline to a joke! I don’t find it funny when I am trying to breathe and can’t. I don’t think throwing away my inhaler with confidence will cure my breathing problems either! When I was sitting down folding my laundry, and catching the last few minutes of The Goonies, the kid with asthma throws away his inhaler and says “who needs this!” Ummmm lots of people do!

I guess I have a problem because I don’t see myself as an anxious person, or someone so insecure, I need to use a puffer to get through any kind of stress in my life. I work in stress everyday. My father recently died (March 2nd) and yes, I did have problems with asthma the days following...but that is an exception to me. I have been around people that I think are gorgeous and amazing, but never had to whip out my inhaler in order to get the courage to talk to them (as in the movie Hitch)! (I have even met some of my favourite actors, so handsome, and had no problem as I am just naturally calm). It just made me shake my head, and made me feel a little ashamed I have this condition. Is this all in my head???

As I said, I work in a hospital, in an emergency room, and my experience is to keep my breathing problems (if it does happen at work) to myself. Nobody wants to help, in fact, they do the opposite. You are given more work to do. We have a coffee shop in the main lobby, at the complete opposite end of the hospital as the Emergency department. It is a long walk to get there. I once had a bad reaction when I first started working there, and was wheezing pretty loud. Never complained or attracted attention to it. Could hardly talk to my patients. Co workers asked if ai was ok, and I told them I am having an asthma attack. They rolled their eyes. I kept on working. Out of nowhere, a co worker gives me a handful of money, and when I asked her what is going on, she said everyone wanted me to go to the coffee shop to get them all coffee! None of them were busy at the time, but yet I was struggling to catch a breath, but expected to go on a coffee run for six people? It is just not seen as anything serious to people who should be in the know of what I was going through.

I think it takes a lot of courage to take your medication in front of your class Tugun. It is something that is important to do, and you are absolutely right...there is nothing wrong with it and nobody should feel bad about taking medication needed to actually breathe. Just so frustrating that society acts the way they do towards this problem.

Ugh, I hate that inhalers are seen as emotional crutches. I wish they would just stop with that portrayal and find a better way to show someone is anxious (I bet it's not a realistic portrayal of anxiety disorder either which from friends I know can be horrible - you can't just decide not to have it either.)

An inhaler is not a security blanket - I also need to use mine a fair bit and that would be because I have poorly controlled severe asthma. It has nothing to do with being anxious, it's treating a physiological reaction. I also get annoyed with the way it sometimes seems like everyone is expected to be very anxious when they are having an attack. I only get anxious about how I will be treated as I'm atypical, and that doesn't affect my breathing (stress actually helps).

I'm sure there are some people who get a bit too dependent on the inhaler, and people who quite reasonably do get anxious when they cannot breathe, but it doesn't mean everyone does or that asthma is all panic, and that kind of thing doesn't help the public/drs take it seriously.

Also a bit worried about how your colleagues react to your asthma when you work in A and E!! I mean not really acceptable to treat you that way but do they also dismiss patients with asthma? That's scary ignorance for clinical staff.

Yes, they treat people the same way who come in, in some cases worse. But not to their faces. Well, sometimes to their faces. I live in Canada. Our health care system is amazing, but it has its problems. People tend to take advantage that it is a free service and use the emergency for medial things - when they should be going to their GP or walk in clinics. As a result, the emergency sees so many people, every day, that have: mental illness where they have nothing wrong at all, but are in need of a lot of attention and make up things to get in, have problems that do not need emergency treatment (I have seen people come in for colds that they had a few days ago, but it is gone now. So....why are you here??), don’t go see their GP because “they don’t like them”, and other reasons. So, over the years, the people who do triage patients, develop an attitude. I would say 75% of the people we see are OK. It is not an emergency. So when people come in with asthma, and they are going on and on, and their oxygen saturation is 100%, the staff tend to get short with them, brush them off, walk off to the side where the patient can’t see them and roll their eyes. Sometimes I wonder if these colleagues ever felt like they can’t catch their breath? Have they ever had a day where you were just minding your own business (at work, out running errands), and suddenly you can’t get air? I have never seen any coworkers ever treat....I don’t know....a person with diabetes like that when when they come in. Everyone rushes around and anything they are going through is taken very seriously.

Last Christmas I was in Bed Bath and Beyond, looking for a new duvet cover for myself. (Good sales). And, I turned to the back of the store , and they had around 20 diffusers going. I had a bad reaction. No Ventolin in my purse or car. Next day I go to work, and my voice is scratchy and I am still wheezing. I am asked by a doctor (with some co workers standing around) what happened to me - I sound awful. I explained and as soon as I say I have asthma, he rolls his eyes and gives glances at the other nurses around us. I was working. I was approached by him and asked what was wrong. I never brought it up! I was going about my day as usual. Just the attitude as soon as you say asthma. I wonder what that is? Why is that?

We have the same issues in A and E here in the UK. Well usually - they're now having to push people to come in who do need it, because there was a sudden drop off in serious attendances from March and they were worried everyone was expiring at home because they were worried about catching COVID.

That's an awful attitude from your colleagues though and quite worrying. I have atypical asthma and my sats usually stay up even when things are bad, as they can for many asthmatics. I'm disturbed at the attitude and the ignorance you mention; I have sometimes encountered it and am sure had some eyerolls and some outright rudeness and ignorance which has put me off coming. But more often been taken seriously thankfully (the medical team on the ward post treatment and especially the resp teams are often another matter...).

It really isn't acceptable, but I do find too many people seem to think they know all about asthma and can scoff at it. In the UK three people a day on average die of asthma and two-thirds of those deaths have preventable elements. We are the worst in Europe for child asthma deaths and 6th worst in Europe for asthma deaths overall - clearly we're not getting it right. I don't know how those numbers compare to Canada and how your country is overall with asthma (we have definite variation in hospitals by region), but it's not good to hear this.

in reply to Willow7733

Hi Willow,

It becomes easier the more you do it. Now I do it without any problem at all.

The funny thing about those people who go behind the curtain to roll their eyes is that their attitude is so blatant that you know they are doing it. It emanates from their pores and the tightness around their mouths. They are usually useless because they are not observant, don't actively listen and have already prejudged you.

I was thinking the same thing last night! I was watching I, Tonya and in it she puffs at her inhaler and then continues to breath normally. She doesnt inhale and hold her breath. I worry a lot of people just think asthma is being a bit out of breath. I've had a lot of times where I've been told its anxiety because my peak flow doesnt always drop immediately, or if it does it's still within the 'green'. A lot of tv shows also portray asthmatics as the geeky, unsporty, uncool, spectacled characters who are mocked. It's the same as when characters straighten curly hair and throw away their glasses and are immediately the hottest ones and the lead males new love interest!

I know! I noticed that too. It really sucks to be me...I have glasses (i can’t wear contacts at work because the hospital air is so dry), have asthma, and have long curly hair. 🤓 Oh well. Haha 🙄

Me too! Glasses, curly hair, asthma. By those standards in a movie i would never find love or happiness until I blind myself, burn myself straightening my hair, and risk illness by chucking my inhalers away haha!

At work and with family I always get “Did you ever try to straighten your hair?” ( Yes. I have. It is a big process. I don’t have time.) Then it’s “you would look so good with straight hair!!” Ok...

We look beautiful regardless of what movies say :D

That we do! 👍

I was recently on a course of prednisolone and even my own sister who’s seen me in hospital many a times with asthma asked ‘do you really need the steroids?’

Wow. That shows how much people don’t understand what is going on.

I find it curious how poorly actors use inhalers. Just as a pump press without the accompanying inhalation.

I know! It is almost like they take it, but don’t really, to show they don’t really need it...

I feel like you read my mind with this! It frustrates me that people just don’t get it. I think a lot of people’s perceptions (the general public I mean) are based upon the over prescribing of asthma meds in the 90’s?

I’m generally a very confident individual but dealing with my asthma publicly breaks me. I just hate people have an opinion on it and everyone seems to be an expert on everything these days. Work is where I too struggle most. I don’t like being seen as weak however, in January I had no choice but to share my asthma with my colleagues after having a bit of a whopper whilst working. They were actually lovely and my colleagues ignore me when I’m struggling unless I ask (my instructions exactly haha).

I could go on all day about this. I’m so glad someone brought it up!

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