Asthma is a chronic disease that involves inflammation of the lungs and swollen of airways which restricts airflow in and out of the lungs, making it hard to breathe. The word asthma comes from the Greek word for “panting.” People with asthma pant and wheeze because they cannot get enough air into their lungs.
Normally, when you breathe in something irritating, harsh or you do something that causes you to need more air, like exercise, your airways relax and open. But with asthma, muscles in the airways tighten, and the lining of the air passages swells.
Asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness. About half of all cases develop before the age of 10, and many children with asthma also have allergies.
Asthma can either be allergic or non-allergic. With allergic asthma, an allergic reaction to an inhaled irritant, such as pet dander, pollen or dust mites, triggers an attack. The immune system springs into action, but instead of helping, it causes inflammation. This is the most common form of asthma.
Non-allergic asthma does not involve the immune system. Attacks can be triggered by stress, anxiety, cold air, smoke, or a virus. Some people have symptoms only when they exercise, a condition known as exercise-induced asthma.
While there is no proven cure for asthma, it can be controlled or managed but in some cases ones faith in Christ can cure it. People with moderate-to-severe asthma should use conventional medications to help control symptoms. Complementary and alternative therapies, used under your doctor’s supervision, may help, but should not replace conventional treatment.
Signs and Symptoms
Most people with asthma go for periods of time without any symptoms, and then have an asthma attack. Some people have chronic shortness of breath that gets worse during an attack. Asthma attacks can last minutes to days and can become dangerous if airflow to the lungs becomes severely restricted.
Primary symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath.
- Wheezing, this usually begins suddenly. It may be worse at night or early in the morning. It can be made worse by cold air, exercise, and heartburn. Wheezing is relieved by using bronchodilators which are medicines that open the airways.
- Chest tightness.
- Cough (dry or with sputum). In cough-variant asthma, this may be the only symptom.
If you have any of these symptoms, seek emergency treatment:
- Extreme difficulty breathing or stopping breathing
- Bluish color to the lips and face, called cyanosis
- Severe anxiety
- Rapid pulse
- Excessive sweating
- Decreased level of consciousness, such as drowsiness or confusion
Asthma is most likely caused by several factors. Genes play a part. You are more likely to develop asthma if others in your family have it. Among those who are susceptible, being exposed to environmental factors, such as allergens, substances that cause an allergic reaction, or infections, may increase the chance of developing asthma.
The following factors may increase the risk of developing asthma:
- Having allergies.
- Family history of asthma or allergies.
- Reduced lung function at birth.
- Being exposed to secondhand smoke.
- Having upper respiratory infections as an infant.
- Living in a large city.
- Among younger children, asthma develops twice as often in boys as in girls. But after puberty, it may be more common in girls.
- Gastroesophageal reflux (heartburn).
Childhood asthma, in particular, can be triggered by almost all of the same things that trigger allergies, such as:
- Dust, cockroach waste, pet dander, indoor and outdoor mold, and pollen.
- Air pollutants, such as smoke, perfumes, diesel particles, sulfur dioxide, high ozone levels, and fumes from paint, cleaning products, and gas stoves.
- Changes in the weather, especially in temperature (particularly cold) and humidity.
- Tobacco smoke.
- Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can trigger asthma in up to 5% of adult asthma patients.
Other triggers include:
- Activities that affect breathing, such as exercising, laughing, crying, or yelling
- Stress and anxiety
Asthma symptoms can mimic several other conditions, and your doctor will take a thorough history to rule out other diseases. You may also have lung function tests to measure how much air your lungs can hold and how much air you breathe out. Your doctor may use a spirometer to measure how much air you exhale and how quickly you get air out of your lungs. Other tests may include chest and sinus x-rays, blood tests, or allergy tests.
Asthma is classified as:
- Mild intermittent: Having mild symptoms up to 2 days a week and 2 nights a month
- Mild persistent: Having symptoms more than 2 days a week but not more than 1 time in a single day
- Moderate persistent: Having symptoms once a day and more than 1 night per week
- Severe persistent: Having symptoms throughout the day on most days and often at night
Although you cannot prevent asthma, you can take steps to reduce the number and frequency of attacks.
- Avoid allergens and irritants as much as possible.For example, reduce your exposure to dust mites by using special mattress and pillow covers that keep allergens out and removing carpets from bedrooms. Clean your house frequently. Wear a mask while cleaning and choose cleaners without harsh chemicals.
- Even people with exercise-induced asthma can stay active, and exercise will help you strengthen your lungs and maintain a proper weight. Take precautions when it is cold outside. Wear a face mask to warm the air that you breathe in. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.
- Pay attention to your breathing.Watch for signs of an oncoming attack, such as wheezing. Your doctor may give you a machine called a peak flow meter that can detect slight differences in your breathing before you even notice them, so that you can take medication to ward off an attack. Your doctor will help you know which changes could mean you need medical attention right away.
- Treat attacks quickly.The sooner you treat an attack, the less severe it will be and the less medication you will need.
- Consider immunotherapy (allergy shots).If you have allergies, allergy shots may lower the number of asthma attacks you have and their intensity, and also reduce the amount of medication you need. Immunotherapy includes regular injections of the substance you are allergic to, with each subsequent shot containing a slightly higher amount than the previous shot. Sublingual immunotherapy delivers the allergen in drops under the tongue. Over time your immune system becomes used to the allergen and no longer reacts to it. Talk to your doctor about whether immunotherapy is right for you.
Avoiding asthma attacks, reducing inflammation, and preventing lung damage are the primary goals of treatment. The more you know about your condition, the more closely you can work with your doctor to develop an asthma action plan. To control asthma, you need to prevent exposure to allergic triggers and take medication as prescribed. Monitoring your breathing and taking your medications every day will help you control asthma over the long term. You may still need emergency medications during an asthma attack.
In a severe attack, you may need to be hospitalized for oxygen and medications that are given intravenously (IV).
- If you smoke, quit.
- Lose weight if you are overweight. Being overweight may put pressure on the lungs and trigger an inflammatory response.
- Monitor your condition every day using a peak flow meter, which is a portable device that helps measure how your lungs are working. Keep a diary of readings to show your doctor. Together, you will establish your “personal best” reading. You should call your doctor if your peak flow reading falls below 80% of your personal best. Go to the hospital if it falls below 50%.
- Keep a journal that logs changes or attacks. It may help determine triggers..
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Although there is no diet for asthma, people who have allergic asthma may also have food allergies that can make their asthma worse. If you think you may have food allergies, talk to your doctor about trying an elimination diet.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants may also help control asthma. One study found that people with asthma who followed the Mediterranean diet had better control of asthma symptoms. Some studies suggest that people with asthma tend to have low levels of certain nutrients. But there is no evidence that taking supplements helps reduce asthma attacks. An overall healthy diet will help you get the nutrients you need, and help your body deal with a long-term condition like asthma.
- Choline. This B vitamin may help reduce the severity and frequency of asthma attacks. Some evidence indicates that higher doses (3 g per day for adults) may work better. But you should not take high doses without your doctor’s supervision. More research is needed.
- Magnesium. The idea of using magnesium to treat asthma comes from the fact that people who have asthma often have low levels of magnesium. Some studies show that intravenous (IV) magnesium can work as an emergency treatment for an asthma attack. However, studies have shown mixed results. More research is needed. Magnesium may interact with certain medications. Speak with your physician.
- Fish oil. The evidence for using omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil) to treat asthma is mixed. At least a few studies have found that fish oil supplements may reduce inflammation and symptoms in children and adults with asthma. But the studies have only included a small number of people. One study found that fish oil might make aspirin-induced asthma worse. Ask your doctor whether a high quality fish oil supplement makes sense for you. In high doses, fish oil may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you take a blood thinner, such as warfarin (Coumadin).
- Quercetin. Quercetin, a kind of antioxidant called a flavonoid, helps to reduce the release of histamine and other allergic or inflammatory chemicals in the body. Histamine contributes to allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose, watery eyes, and hives. Because of that, quercetin has been proposed as a treatment for asthma. Quercetin can interact with certain medications. So ask your doctor before taking it.
- Vitamin C (1 g per day). One preliminary study suggested that children with asthma had significantly less wheezing when they ate a diet rich in fruits with vitamin C. Vitamin C does have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which may help you maintain good health. Some studies suggest that taking a vitamin C supplement (1 g per day) may help keep airways open, but other studies show no benefit.
- Coenzyme Q 10 (CoQ10). If you have asthma, you may have low levels of this antioxidant in your blood. However, researchers do not know whether taking CoQ10 supplements will help improve symptoms. CoQ10 may interfere with certain medications, including some chemotherapy agents and blood pressure medications. CoQ10 can increase the blood’s clotting ability, interfering with blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin) and aspirin, among others.
- Lycopene and beta-carotene. Preliminary data suggests that these two antioxidants, found in many fruits and vegetables, may help prevent exercise-induced asthma. People who smoke or take simvastatin (Zocor) should not take beta-carotene without talking to their doctors.
- Vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 may be needed if you are taking theophylline because this medication can lower blood levels of B6.
- Potassium. Levels in the body may be lowered if you take theophylline.
Most people with asthma have occasional attacks separated by symptom-free periods. Paying attention to your mood, lowering the stress in your life, and having a good emotional support system will help you take good care of yourself. Routine follow up visits are encouraged, at a frequency of every 1 to 6 months, depending on severity.
Source: University of Maryland Medical Center