As people with asthma are well aware, living with chronic inflammation of the airways is often painful and life-invading. However, for those who do not have asthma or who suspect that they might have asthma-related symptoms, it is important to know exactly what asthma is, what causes and triggers it, and how it is treated.
If you suspect that you have asthma, you should contact your doctor to discuss symptoms, diagnosis, and what a treatment plan might involve. This article is not a diagnostic tool, but it provides helpful information that can initiate a discussion with your doctor.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a life-long chronic inflammation of the body’s airways. Excessive amounts of mucus are produced along with the inflammatory response, making it feel difficult to breathe and triggering coughing attacks. In the United States alone, roughly 22 million people have been diagnosed with asthma, and approximately 6 million of them are children.
Our bodies’ airways carry air into and out of our lungs, but for asthmatics, the inflammation and mucus build-up caused by an inhaled trigger stimulus cause the airways to become restricted. As the airways become narrower, less air is able to pass into the lungs. A chain reaction can occur, causing the airways to narrow even more as the muscles tighten, allowing even less air into the lungs.
However, not everyone suffers from the same symptoms or experiences the same severity of symptoms. Some asthma sufferers barely notice a problem while others have asthma that is so severe that it interferes with daily living.
Currently, there is no cure for asthma. The best way to deal with asthma is to control its symptoms, which can take time, medication, or herbal remedies targeted at inflammation reduction.
What Causes Asthma?
The exact cause of asthma is not yet known, although some researchers tend to think that asthma is caused by environmental and genetic factors that tend to manifest early on in a person’s life. These factors generally include atopy (the genetic inheritance of the tendency to develop allergies), parents who also have asthma, contact with airborne allergens in early childhood, contraction of viral infections during early childhood, or respiratory infections that are contracted during childhood. Since young children’s’ immune systems are still developing, these types of infections can be more easily contracted and less effectively eradicated through treatment than they would with adults.
Some researchers also believe that our Western culture’s obsession with sanitation has led to changes in the ways children’s immune systems develop. Children do not contract as many serious childhood diseases as they did even 100 years ago, and their living situations have therefore dramatically altered. This could, as the “Hygiene Hypothesis” researchers claim, put children more at risk for having asthma and atopy, especially if they are already genetically predisposed due to their parents having these conditions. Of course, more research is necessary to understand the root causes of asthma, and this notion of our society’s emphasis on hygiene is still only a testable hypothesis.
What Triggers an Asthma Attack?
An asthma attack can be triggered by different sources, especially by exposure to an allergen in the environment. Examples of allergens include pet dander, mold, pollen, or dust mites. Asthma attacks can also happen when a person is exposed to perfumes, smoke, or other airborne irritants. Additionally, upper respiratory infections and sinusitis can trigger asthma attacks, as can a significant amount of exercise.
Even changes in the weather and shifts in our emotions, stress and depression specifically, are even thought to be triggers for asthma attacks in some individuals.
You can recognize a triggering event if you start to feel the need to scale back on your exercise while you’re in the middle of it, if you experience a sudden shortness of breath, if you develop a worsening cough, or if you find yourself reaching for your asthma rescue medication. If you are unsure of exactly what is triggering your attacks, try keeping a written record of what you are doing and feeling every time you experience an attack.
Foods to Avoid if You’re Asthmatic
There are certain foods that people with asthma should try to avoid eating. While research is ongoing into why some foods seem to make asthma symptoms worse, there are certainly some foods that commonly cause issues. Everyone tends to react differently to various foods, and other issues, such as autoimmune disorders or hypothyroidism, can further complicate matters.
Some of the worst foods for asthmatic people are eggs, salt, dairy products, and peanuts, as they all have negative effects on people with asthma. Peanuts are especially hazardous, as children with peanut allergies appear to develop asthma earlier in life than children without. Shellfish, another common food allergen, is a particularly persistent allergy that generally lasts your entire life and is especially prevalent in children who have asthma.
Alternatively, some foods are beneficial for people with asthma. Studies have found that apple consumption is inversely linked to asthma. As an example, a study conducted in the UK showed that flavonoids found in apples and red wine seem to have protective effects that benefit adults with asthma. Cantaloupe, flax seeds, avocado, carrots, garlic, and even coffee can be helpful for those with asthma.
How Asthma is Diagnosed
Asthma is generally diagnosed with a physical exam as well as a lung functioning exam. A physical exam helps to rule out the potential for having other similar conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD. This also allows your doctor to check for asthma symptoms.
A physical exam is sometimes accompanied by a lung functioning exam, which assesses how much air you take in and let out as you breathe. Your doctor might perform a peak flow test, which uses a meter to measure how hard you can exhale. Your lungs might not be working at an optimal level if your reading is low, which can indicate the presence of asthma. Your doctor might opt for a spirometry test to see how much air you exhale and how quickly you can do so. A low performance here tends to show the narrowing of bronchial tubes, which happens in response to inflammation and mucus build-up.
Your doctor might also want to perform additional tests, such as x-ray imaging and allergy testing.
While there is no cure for asthma, it is a highly treatable condition. Long-term asthma control medications, quick-relief medications, and allergy medications are all commonly used to treat asthma.
It is also advisable that those with asthma make lifestyle and environmental changes, like regularly cleaning and preventing or treating mold spores that develop in the home. Getting regular and moderate exercise can help, as does eating the right foods and avoiding the harmful ones.
Alternative medicine also provides ways of controlling asthma symptoms. Meditation, yoga, and various herbal remedies can often benefit those with asthma who are not being helped by or wish to avoid taking prescription medications. Activities that focus heavily on breathing exercises can be very helpful for asthma sufferers.
Asthma can be a difficult condition to live with, especially for severe cases. Scientists are still looking for a cure, but the best hope for dealing with asthma symptoms is through education, awareness, early detection, and treatment. If you or your child have asthma symptoms, contact your doctor to discuss what you should do next.