Q: I just found out I'm pregnant and am worried that my asthma medications could harm my baby. Should I stop taking them?
A: Absolutely not. Not only are most asthma medications safe to continue during pregnancy, but stopping them greatly increases the chances that you'll experience a flare-up, which is risky for you and your baby. "Severe or poorly controlled asthma increases the risk for several complications, including intrauterine growth restriction and preterm birth, as well as hypoxia [oxygen deficiency] for you," explains Andrew Satin, M.D., vice chairman of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and chairman of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "In fact, stopping meds is the No. 1 cause for exacerbation of asthma during pregnancy." This chronic condition complicates approximately 4 percent to 8 percent of all pregnancies, adds Satin, who is also chairman of a committee on asthma for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Ideally, a woman who has asthma should see her doctor before she even becomes pregnant to make sure the condition is well controlled. If that is not possible, Satin says, "Women with asthma should be assessed by their obstetrician early in pregnancy. Once their doctor determines how severe or well-controlled the condition is, treatment is generally divided into two categories: rescue medications and controllers." (Rescue treatment is for acute attacks; controllers are prophylactic medications that help prevent flare-ups.) In addition to taking the proper medications, which are generally very effective, Satin says identifying and eliminating asthma triggers goes a long way toward reducing the number of attacks a person suffers. "Allergens, pet hair, mildew and tobacco smoke are common irritants," he says. "Reducing exposure to them will greatly reduce exacerbations."