It is estimated that 25 million Americans have asthma, a chronic inflammation of the lungs’ airways.
The inflammation narrows the air passages making breathing cumbersome as there is less space for air to flow freely. The most common symptoms of asthma are shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and a tight sensation in the chest.
There are four different kinds of asthma that are diagnosed according to the frequency of attacks, the measurement of the amount and/or flow of air that can be inhaled and exhaled.
The four kinds:
- Intermittent Asthma – which occurs less than once a month
- mild persistent – which occurs one to six time each week
- moderate persistent – which occurs daily
- severe persistent – which occurs daily in addition nighttime attacks.
The symptoms of asthma occur when certain substances are inhaled, thus irritating the airways and causing the muscles in the airways to tighten which in turn narrows the airways. Mucus is then made by the airways’ cells, which lead to a thickening of the passages giving way to the symptoms of asthma.
While asthma is a chronic condition, the symptoms are not. The symptoms present themselves during a flare-up, or asthmatic attack and then subside once the attack has passed. Symptoms can range from mild to severe depending upon the intensity of the attack and the individual’s sensitivity to the perpetrating substances.
There is no exact cause of asthma. Instead, medical professionals believe that asthma is a caused by a number of different factors, some of which can be controlled and some of which cannot such as family history and genetics. Individuals born to asthmatic parents and those who contracted a respiratory infection in childhood may have an increased risk to developing the condition.
Environmental factors of asthma include exposure to certain irritants and allergens like dust, pet dander and smoke. In addition, our sophisticated hygiene practices such as the use of antibacterial soaps may contribute to the development of asthma. While our vigilant sanitation practices have clearly reduced incidence of numerous communicable diseases, some researchers believe that these health behaviors have prevented our immune systems from building up the necessary responses to respiratory infections which can produce conditions like asthma
The risk factors for developing asthma are largely associated with the alleged causes. Having allergies, experiencing frequent bouts of wheezing and being exposed to certain environmental pollutants are the most prominent risk. Among children, more boys develop asthma than girls but among adults, more women than men develop the condition. It is still unclear why these gender discrepancies exist.
The top 15 environmental pollutants that contribute to asthma are:
- Air pollution
- Tobacco smoke
- House dust mites
- Grass pollen
- Pet dander
- Perfumes, cologne and perfumed products
- Household cleaners
- Air refreshers
- Oil-based paint
- Hair products like hair sprays and hair gels
- Household paper products like toilet paper, paper towels and tissues
- Cold weather
There is no cure for asthma but there a variety of medications and lifestyle changes that can help to control the symptoms and prevent the progression of attacks. The standard treatment involves taking one or more asthma medications as well as avoiding the trigger allergens and irritants.
The medications used to treat asthma are long-term control medications and short-term control medications which are used to provide immediate relief during a flare-up. Inhalers are some of the most common forms of medications used to treat asthma. Their objective is to reduce inflammation and open up the airways. Depending upon the specific type of inhaled medication being taken, the effects can be immediate. Some inhalers are used only for short-term treatment while others must be used daily in order to be effective over time. Medications in the pill form work to relax the muscles in the airways and open them up.
Below is a breakdown of the most common asthma medications:
Long-term inhaled corticosteroids: These inhalers reduce inflammation in the airways while not producing the negative effects associated with long-term steroid use. Flovent (fluticasone) and Pulmicort (budesonide) are two of the most common long-term inhalers.
Short-term treatments: Used only in response to an attack, quick-relieving bronchodilators quickly open up the airways and relax muscles immediately making breathing easier.
Allergy-desensitization injections: When given consistently over a period of time, these injections reduce the reaction to certain allergens.
Since there are many different kinds of asthma treatments available and treatments may need to be frequently adjusted in order to maintain their effectiveness, treatment plans must be closely monitored by your medical doctor.
Preventing asthmatic flare-ups involve observing how your life and behaviors may aggravate an attack. Identifying the irritants that incite an attack and taking the necessary steps to avoiding them is of foremost importance. Additionally, it is necessary to be alert to the very early warning signs of an attack such as subtle changes in your breathing patterns. Using a peak air flow meter in order to measure your lung capacity can signal you that an attack is impending. Acting quickly by taking the necessary medication and removing yourself from the trigger environment can prevent or greatly lessen the attack.
In addition, keeping indoor air clean and at a balanced humidity level, using an air conditioner, changing air filters and minimizing dust around the house are other ways to prevent asthmatic attacks. Maintaining a regular fitness routine, which can improve your heart and lung capacity as well as keeping your weight at a healthy level, will also help to keep your condition under control.
There are numerous resources available to those who suffer from asthma. While the Internet can be a formidable place for researching causes, treatment options and preventive measures, communicating with a trained medical professional like an allergist or pulmonologist is not just necessary but it will yield the most successful results in managing your condition. In addition, there are a variety of air quality experts who can advise you how to reduce risk of exposure to asthma-provoking elements in and outside of your home.
List of additional asthma resources: American Lung Association:
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America http://www.aafa.org/
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/