Asthma: What you need to know



Did you know that there are more than 339 million people living with asthma worldwide? In 2016, the Global Burden of Disease collaboration estimated that 420,000 people in the world died from asthma, which translates to more than 1,000 asthma-related deaths per day. More than 80 per cent of these deaths occur in low-and lower-middle income countries.

Asthma is a chronic condition involving the airways in the lungs. Basically, a person’s airways become inflamed and produce mucus. This makes it difficult for the individual to breathe. In many people, asthma is mild, but in others, it can interfere with daily activities. In worst case scenarios, asthma attacks can lead to death.

Common symptoms

Asthma symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, coughing, and wheezing. It is important to note that not everyone suffering from asthma experiences it the same way. Some people may not have all of these symptoms, or they might have different symptoms at different times.

Symptoms may also vary from one attack to the next, being mild in one occasion and severe in the other one. Some people with asthma might have extended symptom-free periods while others have symptoms daily.

Mild asthma attacks are more common than severe ones. In such cases, the airways open up within a few minutes to a few hours. Mild attacks might require little or no medical treatment.

On the other hand, severe asthma attacks are less common, but they last longer and require immediate medical attention. That said, it is important to get medical attention even if you have mild symptoms. This will help prevent severe episodes and keep asthma under control.

The exact cause of asthma remains unknown. However, researchers have found a strong genetic component is asthma susceptibility. According to WHO, about half of asthma susceptibility is linked to genes.

If your parent or siblings have asthma, you are at an elevated risk of also being asthmatic. One 2010 study found that people who have one parent with asthma are nearly twice more likely to have it than people who did not have a parent with the condition.

But in all cases of asthma, it seems that a trigger sets off a chain of allergy-like reactions that end up causing the symptoms. Because of the connection between asthma and allergies, a genetic predisposition towards allergies may explain many cases of the condition.

Common asthma triggers include allergens and irritants such as dust, tobacco smoke, mold, pet dander, and certain foods and food additives. It is estimated that 80 per cent of people with asthma have allergies, which trigger the attacks. Asthma attacks can also be triggered by other factors such as exercise and infectious diseases such as flu, colds, and bronchitis.

Link between asthma and allergies

Have you ever had a sneezing fit due to being exposed to pollen? This is similar to what happens during an allergic asthma attack. But while such a sneezing fit only causes temporary discomfort, asthma symptoms tend to be more severe and life-threatening.

When people with allergies are exposed to allergens such as pollen, their bodies produce antibodies that bind to the allergen. In most people allergy symptoms are limited to the head – such as runny nose, watery eyes, and headache.

But in people with asthma, the effects are felt in the lungs. The lungs get inflamed and the airways swell up and fill with mucus. This constricts airflow and causes the symptoms associated with asthma.

Asthma affects around 7 million children worldwide. The prevalence of the condition in children is high because children have smaller airways than adults. For an unknown reason, asthma prevalence has been increasing over the years.

Most children with asthma start experiencing the symptoms before they turn five. Most people with the condition develop it during childhood.

Children might experience asthma differently than adults. For instance, not all children with the condition wheeze. Chronic coughing may be the only obvious symptom – which often leads to childhood asthma being misdiagnosed as recurrent bronchitis.

A person’s environment in early life plays a role in whether they develop asthma. Children who grow up around germs are less likely to have asthma. People who grew up in rural areas around animals and in large families are less likely to develop the condition.

This is because early exposure to common irritants and allergens allows the immune system to respond appropriately to them. Children brought up in more sheltered environments are more likely to have exaggerated and potentially deadly response to harmless substances. However, this hypothesis has not been proven. Do not use it as an excuse to expose children to germs.

Diagnosis and treatment

Asthma is fairly easy to diagnose. Doctors often use lung function tests to diagnose asthma. One of these tests measures how much and how fast you can blow air out of your lungs.

The doctor might also have you breathe into handheld machine for about 10 minutes. The air you breathe into the machine is tested for nitric oxide. High levels of nitric oxide in your breath can mean that your airways are inflamed. An X-ray can also be used to diagnose asthma.

Once properly diagnosed, there are two types of treatment that can be prescribed: quick relievers and long-term controllers. Quick-relievers are designed to relax the muscles and open up the airways when flare-ups occur.

They are typically administered directly to the lungs using an inhaler. On the other hand, long-term medications keep asthma symptoms under control and are usually taken even when symptoms are not present.

Although asthma symptoms can be treated, there is no cure for the chronic illness. However, some people appear to outgrow the condition after having it in childhood. Symptoms of asthma might also become less severe or go into remission as someone gets older.

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