Picture a stereotypical nerd in a television show or movie. They probably wear braces and glasses, and if they’re truly unfortunate, headgear. Their shirts are tucked into khakis, and they’re most likely involved in the some sort of academic or role-playing club. They always seem to be clutching something. What is that, a cell phone? Of course not. Who’s texting them? Nope, it’s something of much greater importance to this tragic teen—their inhaler.
Aside from the fact that none of the aforementioned characteristics are actually synonymous with “nerdiness,” the possession of an inhaler, in particular, is the one stereotype that’s always stuck out to me the most.
Ah, the inhaler, the universal sign for Loser, as far as most pop culture references are concerned. After all, it is shaped like a small, but undeniable, L. I remember my first: it was light blue with a navy cap. Were the cute colors supposed to make it the hottest new accessory to hit middle school hallways since micro-purses and slap bracelets? That definitely wasn’t going to happen. Mine stayed stuffed way down inside my L.L.Bean backpack where it belonged, because the messaging I received growing up was that puffing albuterol wouldn’t scream “cool.”
As someone who has had asthma since I was 12 years old, I can’t help but notice that in pop culture, there is apparently no geekier, wimpier character trait than gasping for air or wheezing.
As a teenager, I would run around outside with my friends or go camping with them and start to wheeze. I’d reach for my inhaler to take a puff and, without fail, I’d always hear the same annoying comment. “I'm asthmatic! I'm asthmatic!” My friends would chant in high-pitched voices before dissolving into giggles. I didn’t hear, “Are you ok?” or “Do you need anything?”
Sure, my asthma wasn’t severe at the time, and I knew they were just teasing. But I never really got it. What was the joke?
I blame you, Hollywood.
Asthma, one of the entertainment industry’s most hilarious diseases, occurs when your airways become inflamed after being exposed to certain triggers. This can cause swelling that makes the muscles around your airways constrict, making it difficult to get oxygen into your lungs, as SELF reported previously. Asthma symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. Doesn’t sound fun, right? Yet, somehow these symptoms have become entertainment gold.
Here's what isn't funny—or nerdy, for that matter: landing in the ER due to a severe asthma attack and waking up in a hospital bed with a nebulized bronchodilator tube delivering medication to your lungs. I’ve been there, and it sucks. Asthma can get this severe, yet it’s still often used as a lighthearted punchline in things like comedies and cartoons. Someone cute talks to you? Asthma attack. You get called on in class? Asthma attack. You have to give a speech? Asthma attack. Asthma has become equated with the jittery nerves that also pair with the stereotypical nerd. Let me tell you, I’ve never started wheezing at the sight of someone attractive. Also, shyness is a personality trait. Asthma, on the other hand, is not.
One of the first TV characters with asthma I remember seeing was Carl Wheezer (get it?) from Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron. Carl wore glasses, suspenders, and carried his trusty inhaler. Jimmy was a nerd too, but he didn’t have any sort of disease, so somehow was still considered a cool kid.
More recently, I read Stephen King’s It and was introduced to Eddie Kaspbrak, a geeky hypochondriac with, you guessed it, asthma. It is (as you probably know) a horror novel, but the scariest part for me wasn’t the creepy clown, or the blood shooting out of the sink in that classic scene. It came earlier in the book when a few of the boys were being bullied, and Eddie had an asthma attack. His inhaler was empty, and Bill had to go to the pharmacy, which took about 45 minutes.
The scene fully gripped me as I anxiously flipped the pages to see if Eddie would make it. I felt his pain as he lay on the ground wheezing and struggling to bring air into his lungs. It’s a feeling I know all too well, and there’s nothing comical about it. It’s one of the most panic-inducing scenarios I can think of.
Towards the end of the book, when the group is fighting the evil clown as adults, Eddie tries to harm It by spraying his inhaler in It’s eyes and mouth. Imagine if this had worked; Eddie would have been reclaiming the thing that defined his geekiness and turned it into something that made him a tough guy, a hero even. I won't spoil it, but let’s just say that didn’t happen.
So why do nerds get assigned asthma? Maybe it has to do with the fact that it’s generally not seen as a serious disease.
Asthma can hinder a person’s ability to do or enjoy certain physical activities or sports. My asthma has always been triggered by intense physical exertion and mustiness that comes along with being outdoors, so I can wrap my head around why a correlation may have been established between asthma and doing “nerdy” things, like staying inside to read books or play board games.
But I can’t think of any nerdy characters that have cancer or cystic fibrosis. And they are, of course, not getting made fun of for having these conditions or for not participating in “jock” pastimes. Asthma seems to fall into the “we won’t go to hell for laughing at this” category of health-related humor.
Characters with asthma also are commonly seen as weak and defenseless, making them great targets for bullies. They aren’t able to defend themselves because their number one priority is jamming their inhaler into their mouth as quickly as possible in order to regain their ability to breathe adequately. That franticness is key, as the nerd character is usually portrayed as kind of spastic anyway. Cool kids aren’t, of course.
I want to be clear: I am not trying to offend any self-proclaimed nerds out there, with or without asthma. Nerds rule! But this “nerds need inhalers” trope in the media is so overdone at this point that it’s time to call it out.
Inhalers shouldn’t be an object used to signify that a person or character is weak, or uncool, or unattractive. And health conditions shouldn’t be used to perpetuate stereotypes like this, even when it may seem harmless.
So, those of us with asthma in the world, it’s time we reclaim it. And hey, we’re actually not in the worst company.
You know who has asthma? Jessica Alba. You know who else has asthma? David Beckham, just one of the greatest and most famed athletes in the world. Let’s not forget about Harry Styles, who has used his inhaler on stage on multiple occasions. If these people—they are famous and, in my opinion, total 10s—can have asthma and be seen as capable, athletic, thriving members of society, the asthma-nerd stereotype should probably be retired.
If a character is a nerd, let it be for their affinity and enthusiasm for some academic or unique interest they have—not because they carry a medical device that actually helps keep them alive.