In Australia, 1 in 9 people has asthma, totaling nearly 2.5 million people with a diagnosis of the disease. Each year the disease kills just under 450 residents and is twice as likely to affect indigenous as opposed to non-indigenous individuals. Because it varies a great deal in severity and is presented differently by everyone, it can be easy to misunderstand what asthma is. How it affects individuals, and how it can range from being a simple cough to landing individuals in the hospital are the important questions to deal with.
What is asthma?
A long-term lung condition, asthma is a respiratory condition where people have sensitive airways in the lungs, which react to certain products, triggers or circumstances.
These reactants range from things within the air, such as particles which may be inhaled and passed through the lungs to foods we may eat. Not to mention the stress or over exercise over-exertion as trigger factors of asthma. Other reactants to note are pollution or a change in air temperature or air pressure.
Unknowingly, people may expose themselves to these triggers and reactants which will possibly lead to a flare up. During this time, the muscles around the airway squeeze tight and become narrower. As a consequence, the mucus that normally lines the lungs becomes higher in volume due to being confined to a smaller space. When this happens, the combination of the restricted airway and increased mucus makes it hard for the individual to breathe. Hence the manifestation of typical symptoms like shortness of breath, tight chest, coughing and inability to get enough oxygen.
For some people, these flare ups occur over a short period of time, where they are exposed to the trigger and within an hour. It can occur the other way around over a period of several hours, where the build up of mucus and restriction of airway happens over a longer period of time. Regardless of the trajectory, it can have severe effects on the individual. And when it comes on quickly as an asthma attack, it can be very debilitating. Although asthma cannot be cured, individuals with asthma can manage it. Most asthmatics have a well-monitored treatment plan which serves to minimize the effects of the disease and reduce their symptoms.
How does it present itself?
Asthma comes with a variety of symptoms, but for most people is some combination of these symptoms:
- a tight feeling in the chest
- excess mucus
Symptoms typically occur worse at night or first thing in the morning. Exercise or over exertion may trigger asthma. Many people who have cold experience asthma and find it even more severe in the winter. Typical day to day symptoms may be very minimal, with the occasional issues of coughing or wheeziness.
When an individual is having an asthma attack however, it usually begins with wheezing and coughing. This occurrence quickly turns to a tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and in many cases the individual will severely struggle to breathe. Sometimes during an attack, one is able to self-manage and take the appropriate medication. On the contrary, in severe cases, asthmatics often have to go to the hospital to receive oxygen and stronger medication to help them come back to normal breathing and reduce airway restriction.
How is it treated?
While there is no cure for asthma, as mentioned above, the majority of individuals who experience the disease have a system in place for managing their asthma. This intervention will help minimize symptoms and its severe attacks. For most people, this looks like a combination of preventative and treatment specific drugs.
Most people with asthma will take a daily drug, which acts as a preventative. It typically functions as a leukotriene inhibitor. Leukotriene are the chemicals which your body releases when you breathe in an allergen and they are responsible for causing a tightening in the airways, leading to shortness of breath, and eventually initiating a full blown attack. By keeping these chemicals at bay, it limits their ability to act on the allergen should the individual be exposed to it, and hence drastically reduces the risk of an asthma attack.
The other types of medications that asthmatic individuals can typically use are fast acting drugs or inhalers. These type of medications are taken at the first signs of an asthma attack. Asthma inhalers are typically airway expanding medications. They work to reduce the constriction of the airways. thereby improving breathing and reducing the overall negative impacts of the attack.
While the treatment plan may be different for everyone, and will vary based on the severity of the disease within the individual, most people follow a similar plan to this. For those who develop asthma at a young age, it can take some time before doctors are able to work out a consistent and successful management protocol. But once this protocol is in place, for most people, it is typically well managed with minimal issues.
What are the risk factors for developing asthma?
Did you know that asthma can develop at any age. It is the most common chronic disease among children, especially those who are regularly exposed to second hand smoke, or those who have a low birth rate, resulting in a compromised immune system. Most children first present symptoms around 5 years of age, which often appears as regular respiratory infections throughout early childhood. In addition, it is also more common in young boys due to the smaller size of a young male’s airway. It is also worth noting that in individuals who suffer from asthma, there is almost always a co-occurrence of allergies.
Researchers are not sure whether asthma leads to allergies, or allergies are the cause of asthma. But in over 25% of people who have hayfever, asthma is also present. In this particular incidence, this is large because the allergies reactions triggered by hayfever often lead to airway inflammation.
This inflammation characterises asthma. As such the occurrence of hayfever is considered a risk factor for the development of asthma.
Furthermore, children who have skin conditions such as eczema are also at higher risk of developing asthma. In such condition, the reaction occurs as a result of the lungs being exposed to a foreign invader, or allergen. Allergens or similar foreign invaders elicit an immune response. In eczema, the same holds true, whereby, the skin is exposed to an invader, which elicits an immune response. The immune response manifests itself with the typical rash, and skin discomfort as associated with eczema.
In addition to the allergy connection with asthma, it is important to consider the genetic factor in the development of the disease. Researchers have found over 100 different genes, which are linked to asthma. Many of these genes play roles in managing the immune system and inflammation within the body. These genetic factors may be interacting with environmental factors to produce asthma and they may also be inherited from the parents. Surprisingly three-fifths of all asthma cases are hereditary.
To date, the extent of the role of genes within the development of such disease is not fully understood. Researchers continue to look for links to help better understand it and how to tease it apart at the root. Such undertaking by these experts will help individuals better treat their condition.
Finally, there is an increasing amount of research to support the role that environmental factors play in the development of asthma in individuals. Allergic reactions and asthmatic symptoms are often triggered by air pollution, other chemical reactants or airborne particles. Molds, fumes, chemicals, household cleaners and pesticides, various gases or even severe smog are among the many trigger factors to mention.
In individuals who are asthmatic, the airways are particularly sensitive to particles. And while these airborne chemicals may not start out as the trigger or allergen, in the original development of asthma, the more sensitized lungs can develop resistance against the said particles.
How can I reduce its severity?
In addition to being vigilant about one’s treatment and medication protocol, there are a couple of ways to reduce asthma severity and outbreaks.
- Reducing exposure to air pollution, and common allergens
- Engaging in regular exercise to keep the lungs healthy and engaged
While the diagnosis of it never comes with a cure, it does come with lots of ways to manage the disease. Proper asthma management allows patients to still live a comfortable and uninterrupted life. Moreover, it is a great reminder of the importance of looking after our body. What is the smart way to do is to breathe in clean and healthy air as much as possible.
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