Asthma is a chronic disease involving the airways and lungs. Airways, or bronchial tubes, allow air to come in and out of the lungs. Those who suffer from asthma always have inflamed airways, but if they come in contact with a trigger, those airways become even more swollen and the muscles around the airways can tighten.
This disease affects about 12 million people, or 8 percent of the population, in the United States. It is believed that asthma is an abnormal response to immune cells in your lungs. People with a family history of allergies or asthma are more prone to developing asthma.
Occupational asthma is caused by inhaling fumes, gases, dust or other potentially harmful substances while on the job. It is estimated that 1.9 million cases of asthma among adults, or almost 16 percent of adult asthma cases, are work-related.
Childhood asthma impacts millions of children and their families. In fact, the majority of children who develop asthma do so before the age of five. The disease presents itself in a child in the same way that it does in adults. However, children deal with unique challenges. Asthma is the leading cause of emergency room visits, hospitalization and missed school days for children.
Many people with asthma also have allergies. This is called allergic asthma. If you have this form of asthma, your airways are sensitive to certain allergens. Once these allergens get inside your body, your immune system overreacts and your airways tighten. Common causes of allergic asthma are windblown pollen from trees, grasses and weeds, mold spores and fragments, animal dander and saliva, dust mite feces and cockroach feces. These triggers cause the common symptom of tightness in the airways.
This tightening makes it difficult for air to move in an out of the lungs, causing symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Exposure to allergens, irritants in the air such as smoke or chemical fumes, or extreme weather conditions may trigger symptoms. Illnesses, especially a respiratory illness or the flu, and exercise can also make you more susceptible to symptoms.
Researchers have found that rapid breathing associated with strong emotions can cause bronchial tubes to constrict, possible provoking or worsening an attack. A physical display of strong emotion that affects normal breathing patterns such as shouting, crying or laughing may also contribute to an asthma attack. Panic can prevent a person with asthma from relaxing and following instructions – essentials during an attack.
Asthma symptoms can happen at any time – mild episodes may last only a few minutes and resolve themselves spontaneously or with medication, while more severe episodes can last anywhere from hours to days.
For many asthma sufferers, their symptoms are closely related to physical activity. Exercise is one of the many things that can make asthma worse. In fact, 80 percent of people with asthma have heightened symptoms with exercise. Also, some otherwise healthy people may develop asthma symptoms only when exercising, called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) or exercise-induced asthma (EIA).
These conditions are triggered by hyperventilation during exercise, particularly in cold, dry air and by airborne irritants related to certain sports. Exercise-induced asthma presents itself with the normal symptoms of asthma. However, symptoms can also include upset stomach, sore throat and decreased endurance.
Staying active is an important way to stay healthy, so asthma shouldn’t keep you on the sidelines. In fact, a number of Olympic and professional athletes have asthma. Your physician can develop a management plan to keep your symptoms under control before, during and after physical activity.
There is no cure for asthma, but once it is properly diagnosed and a treatment plan is in place you will be able to manage your condition, and your quality of life will improve.
If you think you have asthma, ask your doctor to help you find a certified asthma educator. Here at Watkins Allergy and Asthma Clinic, certified asthma educators are available to help you manage your condition and live a normal life.