Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo.
It is February, and the second winter of COVID-19 isolation is upon us.
On rare mild winter days, we look for signs of hope. We are surprised by joy when a flock of robins suddenly hops across the yard like a Broadway chorus line. Their spirit is contagious, so even when temperatures are still frigid, we find excuses to bundle up and head outside. Like bears groggy from hibernation, we breathe in mouthfuls of cold bracing air and reconnect with the world.
But beware. For those with asthma, caution is advised when you go outdoors in the cold. I recall that my friend Win Horner always wore a mask when going out in extremely cold weather. I also remember reading about Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood struggle with debilitating asthma while growing up in urban Manhattan. He overcame his childhood health problems through physical exercises that expanded his chest and by adopting a strenuous outdoor lifestyle in the American West that gave him his “cowboy” persona.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, we are eager to get vaccinated as soon as possible. I am 75. Kit is 82, a Type 1 diabetic (for 47 years) and has asthma. During a normal flu season, coughs and a host of other respiratory pronouncements frequently punctuate conversations and can become a cause for concern. In extremely cold weather, some people wrestle with persistent respiratory ailments that hang on for weeks or months, only to return with a vengeance before the person is fully well. The air we breathe can make a person with asthma feel as though they were drowning.
One extremely frigid Missouri winter, I remember hearing a low, wheezing sound just under the surface of Kit’s voice, followed by a cough. Thinking it was just a seasonal cold, I did what my mother would have done. I boiled water in a pot on the stove and added a big spoonful of Vick’s VapoRub ointment. Kit leaned over the steaming pot with a towel draped over his head, breathing in the vapor and moisture. Mother’s traditional aromatherapy worked well for me as a child, and it was soothing and relaxing for Kit’s nasal congestion as well.
When he was 5 years old and living in northern California, Kit had a severe asthmatic attack that landed him in the hospital, leading his mother to move the two of them overnight to Tucson, Arizona, until he’d fully recuperated. His asthma was then forgotten for more than half a century. What followed were physically active years when he ran cross country and was captain of the Oberlin wrestling team. Then, decades later during that extreme Missouri winter, his long-dormant asthma kicked back in with a vengeance and he ended up in the ER.
I’ve since read up on the subject. Respiratory problems, it seems, have been around forever and regularly affected characters in 19th century British novels, as well as the authors themselves. History is filled with references to asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, colds, coughs, earaches, hay fever, influenza, laryngitis, sinusitis, sore throats, tonsillitis and whooping cough. Depending on the century and one’s geographic location, such ailments could be grave indeed.
I learned there are two kinds of coughs: one when the membranes are hot and dry, the other moist with some wheezing and a feeling of choking. Alternative treatments include aromatherapy, homeopathy and naturopathy. Doses of honey can soothe a dry and painful cough. To make the honey more powerful, consider mashing a little chopped raw onion or garlic into it first. The onion helps open up the bronchial passages. Dairy products, I’ve read, should be cut out, along with sugar, cakes and pastries to reduce the catarrh.
Catarrh. Cataract. A great flowing down. Kit remembers his mother using this odd-sounding respiratory reference when he was a child, but it was new to me. Then, in that coincidental way that we bump into language across time, I came across an essay by E.B. White entitled “The Summer Catarrh,” written for Harper’s Magazine in July 1938 — one month before Kit was born.
White was writing about Daniel Webster and a respiratory ailment the two shared in summer — the “Hay-fever,” Webster called it. White’s own childhood catarrhal problems were the result of drives in the countryside and horse dander. A family doctor recommended that White’s mother douse his head in cold water every morning before breakfast. I, too, suffered from hay fever after my family’s move in the 1960s to Nebraska, and I share White’s same allergic reaction to horse dander. Yet, being a cat person, I’ve managed to live with and petted barnfuls of cats without my eyes watering or bronchial passages closing.
For the first time in a century, the world is faced with a deadly pandemic that still is not under control after a year. Effective vaccines have been developed but their distribution is sadly behind schedule. Hospitals and frontline caregivers are over-stressed. With the pandemic as its top priority, the Biden administration is aiming to get vaccination shots into 100 million arms in its first 100 days.
It’s imperative that Americans work together for the common good as we have in wartimes. We need to stay the course. Please get vaccinated, wear a mask and continue social distancing. It’s that simple.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Notes From Boomerang Creek: Winter challenges to the respiratory system
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