Asthma is a chronic condition that affects about 24 million Americans, including both adults and children. This disease constricts the airways, making it difficult for air to reach the lungs. Asthma can cause respiratory symptoms that are uncomfortable and can even be life threatening.
Asthma: The 7 Things You Should Know
#1. What Is Asthma?
Asthma affects the airways that carry air into and out of your lungs, making it difficult to breathe. It can start at any age. If you have asthma, your airways are frequently inflamed. They become even more swollen and the muscles around the airways can tighten when something triggers your symptoms.
When the airways become irritated and swollen in the presence of certain “trigger” elements – such as pollen, dust and pet dander – asthma sufferers may experience coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and/or excessive mucus. The symptoms vary from person to person and may decrease over time and return later in life.
#2. Can Anyone Get Asthma?
Asthma develops most commonly in children before the age of five and in adults usually in their thirties, however, anyone can develop asthma at any time. You are more likely to develop asthma if one of your parents has it and if you have allergies.
According to the Asthma and Allergy foundation of America, 80% of children and 50% of adults with asthma also have allergies. This is known as allergic asthma. Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma. Many of the symptoms of allergic and non-allergic asthma are the same. However, allergic asthma is specifically triggered by inhaling allergens.
#3. What Is An Allergen?
An allergen is a harmless substance capable of triggering a response that starts in the immune system and results in an allergic reaction. For example if you had a pollen allergy, your immune system would identify pollen as an invader or allergen. Your immune system would respond by releasing chemicals that cause symptoms in the nose, throat, eyes, ears and/or skin. This can cause excess mucus production, tightness in the throat, watery eyes and itching or hives on the skin.
Common allergens include:
- Animal dander – this is composed of tiny, even microscopic, flecks of skin that is shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers.
- Foods – in adults, the foods that most often trigger allergic reactions include fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, such as walnuts. Problem foods for children can include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat.
- Insect bites – insects such as bees, ants, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, wasps and arachnids may bite or sting. Allergic reactions occur in response to the venom deposited into your skin through the insect’s mouth or stinger.
- Mold – mold and mildew spores can trigger reactions.
- Plants and Trees – Birch, Elm, Cedar, Oak, Pine, Poplar, Walnut, Ragweed, Bermuda Grass, Bluegrass, Nettle, Sagebrush, and Tumbleweed are all trees/plants that can effect those with asthma.
- Latex – proteins found in natural rubber latex, a product made from the rubber tree can also trigger respiratory reactions.
- Pollens – fine powder produced by trees, flowers, grasses and weeds to fertilize other plants of the same species can irritate respiratory conditions such as asthma.
#4. How Do I Know If I Have Asthma?
Asthma is a disease that requires a diagnosis by your primary care physician along with ongoing assessments and monitoring throughout your lifetime. If you are experiencing symptoms such as wheezing, frequent cough, shortness of breath or chest tightness, it is important to see a healthcare provider or your primary care physician to determine if the symptoms point to asthma. The diagnosis of asthma depends on an evaluation of your symptoms, a complete health history, a physical exam and review of test results.
There are breathing tests your physician may perform. The most common test is called spirometry. This lung function test uses a device called a spirometer, which measures how much air you inhale, how much you exhale and how quickly you exhale. This test shows your physician how well your lungs are working. There are other lung diseases that may cause some of the same symptoms as asthma, requiring your doctor to order additional testing.
#5. How Is Asthma Treated?
The severity and degree of asthma varies from person to person. You and your physician will work together to establish the best treatment plan for you based on your symptoms and needs. Many treatments for asthma are available today. Some asthma medicines work quickly, relaxing your airways and helping you to breathe easier, while other treatments reduce the swelling and inflammation in your airways. It’s important to follow your specific treatment plan.
Quick-relief medications are often prescribed and intended to be taken when your asthma symptoms get worse. It is vital to take these medications as soon as your symptoms begin.
Long-term control medications are intended to be taken daily, even when you are feeling well, to keep your asthma symptoms under control.
For patients with severe persistent asthma – whose asthma is not controlled with inhaled medications – there are some alternative therapies available.
Allergic asthma can be treated with Anti-IgE therapy, and eosinophilic asthma can be treated with Anti-IL 5 therapy. Anti-IgE and Anti-IL5 therapies are administered via injection or IV every two to eight weeks, depending upon the dose and medication required. These therapies work directly with the immune system.
For those who have hyper-reactive airways, which means their airway is over-reactive when allergens are present and does not respond to other treatments, there is another treatment option available. Bronchial thermoplasty is a treatment given through an outpatient procedure called a bronchoscopy (a flexible tube with a light on the end of it). The bronchoscopy allows a pulmonologist to introduce a catheter which applies heat to the inside of the bronchial tubes.
#6. Are There Any Natural Treatments For Asthma?
There are many natural asthma remedies believed to relieve asthma symptoms. The drawback is the fact that there is limited research on alternative treatments for asthma; the effectiveness and safety of many are unknown.
Holistic treatment of asthma focuses on several key principles:
- Reducing exposure to known allergens
- Reducing the reactivity of the airways of the lungs
- Balancing the allergic/inflammatory pathways in the body
- Correcting nutrient imbalances
Reducing allergic exposure is key in holistic treatment of asthma. The first step in reducing exposure to airborne allergens is to determine what you are reacting to. There are two basic options to determine this: skin allergy testing (performed by an allergist) and blood allergy testing (done by your physician). Once allergic triggers are identified, a plan is developed to reduce exposure to those allergens.
In addition, there are holistic therapies recommended for the reduction of asthmatic symptoms. Some of these therapies include:
- Herbs and natural dietary supplements – many herbs, plants and supplements have been used with asthma. However, none of them have been definitively shown to help asthma symptoms and are not recommended. Studies have looked at using magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and vitamin E for asthma symptoms. However, again, not enough evidence is available to recommend these natural therapies.
- Yoga – stress is an asthma trigger. Yoga has been found to help some people with asthma through breath control and by reducing stress.
- Asthma diet – avoid foods that trigger an allergy attacks.
- Acupuncture – acupuncture may help reduce asthma attacks and improve breathing.
- Biofeedback – Biofeedback has been shown to improve asthma symptoms, but not pulmonary function.
#7. Will My Asthma Ever Go Away?
Asthma is not a curable disease. However, it can be controlled effectively enough to make it dormant in your body. It is not like pneumonia that can be cured with antibiotics and breathing treatments. Successful control of asthma entails controlling the inflammation in the airways and reversing symptoms before they get out of hand. This is accomplished with the use of preventative medications when necessary as well as having rescue medications available should an asthma flare occur.
Educating yourself on your asthma triggers and learning to avoid those triggers along with incorporating holistic therapies to reduce stress and improve your overall health and immunity will support you in managing your asthma.
Being proactive about your health, nutrition and well being are the keys for keeping your asthma controlled so that you can live an active and fulfilling life.