Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways to the lungs. It makes breathing difficult and can make some physical activities difficult or even impossible.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 27 million Americans have asthma. It’s the most common chronic condition among American children: 1 child out of every 12 has asthma.
[Wouldn’t it be ideal to have India’s asthma-related statistics here? As per WHO, India has an estimated 15-20 million asthmatics. The prevalence of asthma in children between the years of 5-11 is 10%-15%.]
Normally, with every breath you take, air goes through your nose and down into your throat, into your airways, eventually making it to your lungs. There are lots of small air passages in your lungs that help deliver oxygen from the air into your bloodstream.
Asthma symptoms occur when the lining of your airways swell and the muscles around them tighten. The mucus then fills the airways, further reducing the amount of air that can pass through.
These conditions then bring on asthma ‘attack,’ the coughing and tightness in your chest that is typical of asthma.
Symptoms of asthma include:
- Coughing, especially at night, when laughing, or during exercise
- Wheezing, a squealing or whistling sound made when breathing
- Tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
The type of asthma that you have can determine which symptoms you experience.
Not everyone with asthma will experience these particular symptoms. If you think the symptoms you’re experiencing could be a sign of a condition such as asthma, make an appointment to see your doctor.
The first indication that you have asthma may not be an actual asthma attack. Discover some early symptoms of asthma you may experience instead.
[It would be apt to list down a few of the ‘early symptoms’ here because that’s a promise the line above puts forth.]
Causes of asthma
No single cause has been identified for asthma. Instead, researchers believe that the condition is caused by a variety of factors. These include:
- Genetics: If a parent has asthma, children are more likely to develop it.
- History of viral infections: People with a history of viral infections during childhood are more likely to develop the condition.
- Hygiene hypothesis: This hypothesis proposes that babies aren’t exposed to enough bacteria in their early months and years. Therefore, their immune systems don’t become strong enough to fight off asthma and other conditions.
- Early allergen exposure: Frequent contact with possible allergens and irritants may increase risk for developing asthma.
Certain conditions and environments may also trigger symptoms of asthma. These triggers include:
- Illness: Respiratory illnesses such as the flu and pneumonia can trigger asthma attacks.
- Exercise: Increased movement may make breathing more difficult.
- Irritants in the air: People with asthma may be sensitive to irritants such as chemical fumes, strong odours, and smoke.
- Allergens: Animal dander, dust mites, and pollen are just a few examples of allergens that can trigger symptoms.
- Extreme weather conditions: Conditions such as very high humidity or low temperatures may trigger asthma.
- Emotions: Shouting, laughing, and crying may trigger an attack.
Treatment of asthma
Treatments for asthma fall into three primary categories: breathing exercises, rescue or first aid treatments, and long-term asthma control medications.
Your doctor will determine the right treatment or combination of treatments for you based on the type of asthma you have, your age, and your triggers.
These exercises can help you get more air into and out of your lungs. Over time, this may help increase lung capacity and cut down on severe asthma symptoms. Your doctor or an occupational therapist can help you learn these breathing exercises for asthma.
Rescue or first aid treatments
These medications should only be used in the event of an asthma attack. They provide quick relief to help you breathe again. Examples include:
- rescue inhalers and nebulizers, which are used with medicine that needs to be inhaled deep into the lungs
- bronchodilators, which work to relax the tightened muscles in your lung
- anti-inflammatory, which target inflammation in your lungs that could be preventing your breathing
If you think that someone you know is having an asthma attack, you should sit them upright and assist them in using their rescue inhaler or nebulizer. Two to six puffs of medication should help ease their symptoms.
If symptoms persist for more than 20 minutes, and the second round of medication doesn’t help, seek medical attention.
Long-term asthma control medications
These medications should be taken daily to prevent symptoms. Some rescue treatments, such as inhalers and nebulizers, can be used daily. However, your doctor will need to adjust your dosages.
Several types of medications are used to treat asthma. Read more about each one to understand their risks and benefits.
Asthma home remedies
In general, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and alternative remedies aren’t encouraged as treatments for asthma. If not treated properly, asthma can be life-threatening.
However, these home remedies may help stop symptoms from escalating and may be effective in an emergency:
Coffee or caffeinated tea
Inhaling eucalyptus essential oil may ease breathing difficulties brought on by asthma. Lavender and basil essential oils also show promise. However, for some individuals, inhaling essential oils may make asthma worse. Strong smells and chemicals can trigger asthma or worsen symptoms.
This fatty oil, made from pressed mustard seeds, can be massaged into the skin to help open airways. Mustard oil is different than the mustard essential oil, a medicinal oil which shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin.
Shop for mustard oil. [Just wondering what purpose this line serves]
Other home remedies may help ease symptoms of an asthma attack. Read about even more home remedies that can allow you to breathe more efficiently. [Since there’s no info provided for ‘even more home remedies, should this be knocked off?]
Bronchial asthma is simply another name for the most common type of asthma. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.
Unless a specific type of asthma is mentioned, most references made to asthma are about bronchial asthma.
Types of asthma
The most common type of asthma is bronchial asthma, which affects the bronchi in the lungs.
Additional forms of asthma include childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma. In adult-onset asthma, symptoms don’t appear until at least age 20.
Other types of asthma are described below.
Allergic asthma (extrinsic asthma)
Allergens trigger this type of asthma. These might include:
Non-allergic asthma (intrinsic asthma)
Irritants in the air not related to allergies trigger this type of asthma. Irritants might include:
- Burning wood and cigarette smoke
- Cold air
- Air pollution
- Viral illnesses
- Air fresheners
- Household cleaning products
Occupational asthma is a type of asthma induced by triggers in the workplace. These include:
- Gases and fumes
- Industrial chemicals
- Animal proteins
- Rubber latex
These irritants can exist in a wide range of industries, including farming, textiles, woodworking, and manufacturing.
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB)
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) usually affects people within a few minutes of starting an exercise and up to 10–15 minutes after physical activity. This condition was previously known as exercise-induced asthma (EIA).
Up to 90 percent of people with asthma also experience EIB, but not everyone with EIB will have other types of asthma.
In this type of asthma, symptoms worsen at night.
Triggers that are thought to bring on symptoms at night include heartburn, pet dander, and dust mites. The body’s natural sleep cycle may also trigger nocturnal asthma.
Cough-variant asthma (CVA) Cough-variant asthma doesn’t have classic asthma symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath. CVA is characterized by a persistent, dry cough.
Cough-variant asthma can lead to full-blown asthma flares that include the other more common symptoms. Find out how to identify an asthma cough here.
There’s no single test or exam that will determine if you or your child has asthma. Instead, your doctor will use a variety of criteria to determine if symptoms are the result of asthma.
The following can help diagnose asthma:
- Health history: If you have family members with a breathing disorder, your risk is higher. Alert your doctor to this genetic connection.
- Physical exam: Your doctor will listen to your breathing with a stethoscope. They may also conduct a skin test, looking for signs of an allergic reaction such as hives or eczema. Allergies increase your risk for asthma.
- Breathing tests: Your doctor may use pulmonary function tests (PFTs) to measure airflow into and out of your lungs. The most common test, spirometry, requires you to blow into a device that can measure the speed of the air.
- Avoiding triggers: Steer clear of chemicals, smells, or products that have caused breathing problems in the past.
- Reducing exposure to allergens: If you’ve identified allergens such as dust or mold that trigger an asthma attack, avoid them as best you can.
- Getting allergy shots. Allergen immunotherapy is a type of treatment that may help alter your immune system. With routine shots, your body may become less sensitive to any triggers you encounter.
- Taking preventive medication. Your doctor may prescribe medicine for you to take on a daily basis. This medicine may be used in addition to the one you use in case of an emergency.
Dr. M. L. Ali | Senior Consultant (Gen. Medicine) | Narayana Health, Jamshedpur