When you picture a "nerd," what characteristics come to mind? They commonly wear braces, thick-rimmed glasses, and tuck collared shirts into too-short khaki pants. Most significantly, they clutch an inhaler, a small prop that is frequently used as the universal sign of a true geek. It is this false stereotype that has plagued asthma patients for years, making kids ignore symptoms and hide their inhalers to mask a serious illness that they deem embarrassing.
"When I talk to families, I often say that just like some people have red hair, or blue eyes, some people have asthma. This is part of who you are," said Traci Gonzales, American Lung Association spokesperson, asthma patient and pediatric nurse practitioner. "It is not a sign of weakness or laziness. Asthma medications save lives. I never want a child to feel embarrassed for using a lifesaving medication."
Asthma is a serious chronic condition that causes the airways in your lungs to be hypersensitive. When someone with asthma experiences a trigger, airways swell, muscles constrict and extra mucous makes it difficult to breathe. Asthma is a serious disease that may be life-threatening and affects more than 26 million people in the US, including 6.1 million children.
Unfortunately, pop culture has been enforcing a stigma about asthma for years. Consider Mikey from "The Goonies," who is portrayed as vulnerable and nervous and is seen taking puffs from his inhaler whenever a situation is particularly scary. Stevie from "Malcolm in the Middle" who suffers from severe asthma can barely make it through a sentence without gasping for breath and wheezing uncontrollably.
Though he is also proclaimed a genius, it is this perceived weakness that becomes his defining characteristic. The stereotype even translates to cartoons, with Carl Wheezer from "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and Milhouse from "The Simpsons" represented as weak and timid individuals who are used as comic relief whenever they are upset and need a puff from an inhaler to control their symptoms triggered by anxiety. This misrepresentation suggests that asthma is not only a "nerdy" characteristic, but a funny one.
Equally incorrect, many movies use the inhaler to extenuate a turning point for a character. Albert in "Hitch" pulls out his inhaler every time he is confronted by his crush, but when he finally gets the courage to kiss her he aggressively throws his inhaler across the room. Mikey from "The Goonies" does the same thing, tossing his inhaler when he overcomes his fears. But the reality is that asthma is a chronic condition that does not come and go with character development.
"I don't know if a particular movie or show stands out in my mind, but what concerns me is that I also can't recall a single one that portrays it in an appropriate way. This is disheartening," Gonzales said. "The seriousness of asthma is often underestimated. I have frequently seen kids come in with moderate to severe asthma exacerbation, yet they report they have no symptoms. By the time children recognize their symptoms are worsening, their breathing could already be significantly compromised. Any delay in taking their rescue medication could have serious consequences."
The best way to erase such a prominent stereotype is to educate children about their health and teach them that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Thanks to modern medicine, there are many different kinds of inhalers that a child can use. Most importantly, no one with asthma should let it prevent them from achieving his or her goals. David Beckham has struggled with asthma all his life, but it didn't stop him from becoming a world-famous soccer player. Other athletes include racecar driver TJ Fischer and American Ninja Warrior finalist Najee Richardson, aka "The Flying Phoenix." One Direction's Harry Styles doesn't let asthma keep him from belting out his songs, he has even used his inhaler on stage. Even presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy used inhalers while in office.
"Some parents prevent kids from doing certain activities. This is not generally what I recommend. Asthma should not keep you from doing whatever you want to do in life. If you work closely with your healthcare team to keep your asthma under good control, and use your rescue meducation aappropraitely, asthma should not hinder you," Gonzales said.
"I would love to take away all stigma associated with inhaler use and will continue to work towards that goal. However, the most important thing is that the child understands that the medication can save their life and that they take it when needed." People with asthma may seem like underdogs, but in many cases, they were the heroes all along.
To learn more about asthma and how to talk to your child about the disease, visit our Asthma Resources page.
Blog last updated: August 30, 2023