Facebook takes the blame for many modern problems: shortening attention spans, boosting the use of annoying text-speak and, of course, eroding our quaint notions of privacy. But a just-published case study appearing in The Lancet introduces a brand-new issue laid at the feet of the social networking giant -- asthma attacks.
The report tells the tale of heartbreak in the age of Facebook: An 18-year-old man is dumped and "unfriended" by his girlfriend, who starts "friending" several new young men sooner than he can handle, writes Dr. Gennaro D'Amato, of the High Specialty Hospital A Cardarelli in Naples, Italy. The patient, who isn't named in the report, is clearly a savvy Facebook stalker: When he could no longer access his ex's profile, he created a new nickname for himself on the social networking site and added her once again. What he saw took his breath away. Literally. Every time he looked at her profile -- paging through her pictures, scrolling through her status updates -- he had an asthma attack.
He was no stranger to asthma, but until then his symptoms had been under control with the help of medication. Here in the U.S., an estimated 17 million adults and 7.1 million kids under 18 have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and anxiety or psychological stress is a common cause of non-allergic asthma, experts say.
"Somehow, when the mind is under pressure or stress, some people are prone toward asthma attacks; these are people who really are susceptible to stress,"says Dr. Neil L. Kao, an allergist in Greenville, S.C. Kao didn't treat this particular young man, but he sees many patients whose asthma is caused by stress-outs about school, sports or social situations, which is what might be happening to this young man.
"To me, for that man, social stress triggers an asthma attack," Kao says. "I’ve never heard of Facebook causing it, but I could see that happening." Because while Kao's own Facebook page has been hijacked by his Farmville-addicted wife, for many people, Facebook is an extension of their real-life social network, with real-life social implications. And D'Amato said in an e-mail that while this is the first recorded case of Facebook-induced asthma, there easily could be more cases.
The 18-year-old patient was able to manage his symptoms only after he resolved to keep off of Facebook, after consulting with his doctor and a psychiatrist. And that's just about all you can do, if your asthma attacks are triggered by stress -- try to limit the amount of stress you encounter. "We advise every patient with asthma to know their triggers and to be prepared for the unexpected exacerbations. That's life, so be ready. When their asthma is active, rule one is always stay calm and think," Kao says.