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What is Asthma

Asthma is a disease affecting the airways that carry air to and from your lungs. People who suffer from this chronic condition (long-lasting or recurrent) are said to be asthmatic.

doctor examining a lung x-ray

The inside walls of an asthmatic’s airways are swollen or inflamed. This swelling or inflammation makes the airways extremely sensitive to irritations and increases your susceptibility to an allergic reaction.

As inflammation causes the airways to become narrower, less air can pass through them, both to and from the lungs. Symptoms of the narrowing include wheezing (a hissing sound while breathing), chest tightness, breathing problems, and coughing. Asthmatics usually experience these symptoms most frequently during the night and the early morning.

For information on the different causes of asthma (allergy, colds, stress, exercise, etc)

What Causes Asthma?

crowd of people walking on a street

According to recent estimates, asthma affects 300 million people in the world and more than 22 million in the United States. Although people of all ages suffer from the disease, it most often starts in childhood, currently affecting 6 million children in the US. Asthma kills about 255,000 people worldwide every year.

Children at Risk

Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children – especially children who have low birth weight, are exposed to tobacco smoke, are black, and are raised in a low-income environment. Most children first present symptoms around 5 years of age, generally beginning as frequent episodes of wheezing with respiratory infections. Additional risk factors for children include having allergies, the allergic skin condition eczema, or parents with asthma.

Young boys are more likely to develop asthma than young girls, but this trend reverses during adulthood. Researchers hypothesize that this is due to the smaller size of a young male’s airway compared to a young female’s airway, leading to a higher risk of wheezing after a viral infection.

Allergies

Almost all asthma sufferers have allergies. In fact, over 25% of people who have hay fever (allergic rhinitis) also develop asthma. Allergic reactions triggered by antibodies in the blood often lead to the airway inflammation that is associated with asthma.

Common sources of indoor allergens include animal proteins (mostly cat and dog allergens), dust mites, cockroaches, and fungi. It is possible that the push towards energy-efficient homes has increased exposure to these causes of asthma.

Tobacco Smoke

Tobacco smoke has been linked to a higher risk of asthma as well as a higher risk of death due to asthma, wheezing, and respiratory infections. In addition, children of mothers who smoke – and other people exposed to second-hand smoke – have a higher risk of asthma prevalence. Adolescent smoking has also been associated with increases in asthma risk.

Environmental Factors

Allergic reactions and asthma symptoms are often the result of indoor air pollution from mold or noxious fumes from household cleaners and paints. Other indoor environmental factors associated with asthma include nitrogen oxide from gas stoves. In fact, people who cook with gas are more likely to have symptoms such as wheezing, breathlessness, asthma attacks, and hay fever.

photo of city from high in the air

Pollution, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, cold temperatures, and high humidity have all been shown to trigger asthma in some individuals.

During periods of heavy air pollution, there tend to be increases in asthma symptoms and hospital admissions. Smoggy conditions release the destructive ingredient known as ozone, causing coughing, shortness of breath, and even chest pain. These same conditions emit sulfur dioxide, which also results in asthma attacks by constricting airways.

Weather changes have also been known to stimulate asthma attacks. Cold air can lead to airway congestion, bronchoconstriction (airways constriction), secretions, and decreased mucociliary clearance (another type of airway inefficiency). In some populations, humidity causes breathing difficulties as well.

What happens during an asthma attack?

  • The muscles around your airways tighten up, narrowing the airway.
  • Less air is able to flow through the airway.
  • Inflammation of the airways increases, further narrowing the airway.
  • More mucus is produced in the airways, undermining the flow of air even more.

Asthma is Incurable

Asthma is an incurable illness. However, with good treatment and management there is no reason why a person with asthma cannot live a normal and active life. But?

Asthma is curable.

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