Asthma affects nearly 17 million Americans today and in most developed countries the numbers are the same, with the highest incidence in New Zealand, at 20%. Asthma is rarely fatal and death usually occurs when people underestimate the severity of an attack. Approximately 5,000 people in the US die of the condition each year. There is no cure for asthma, but there are many ways to manage the condition and in turn, live a normal healthy life with the disease.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system. A person with asthma has extra-sensitive bronchioles (the tubes that carry air to the lungs), meaning they become easily swollen and inflamed when exposed to certain “triggers.” When the bronchioles restrict airflow, breathing becomes a battle.
There are many people who have asthma and don’t even know it because they don’t recognize many of the common signs of asthma including: breathlessness, tiredness, chest tightness, wheezing, rapid breathing, excessive mucus and persistent coughing.
Because asthma is episodic, common asthma symptoms aren’t always present.
Persistent coughing can sometimes occur only during exercise (a type of asthma referred to as EIA, exercise included asthma), in the cold or at night. Because of this, many asthmatics remain undiagnosed.
Once a person with asthma is exposed to a trigger, it can take anywhere from one ½ hours to two hours for symptoms to surface. With “Late Phase” asthma, symptoms can occur up to five hours after initial exposure to a trigger. Common triggers include: viruses like a cold or the flu, certain foods, cigarettes and smoke, dust, exercise, pollen/allergens, chemicals, emotional situations and changes in temperature.
Treatments and side effects
There are a variety of different conventional treatments and medications on the market as well as alternative therapies like homeopathy, acupuncture and osteopathy to help control asthma. Depending on the severity of the condition, a doctor might prescribe a “reliever” or “inhaler.” These small devices deliver a mist of measured medications that the person inhales through a mouthpiece. Medication travels directly to the lungs, instead of being distributed throughout the entire body as with oral medications.
Inhalers help to reduce the swelling and inflammation of the lining of the airways. Depending on the type of medications which may include: beta-2 agonists, beta blockers, corticosteroids or adrenaline (often used in emergency situations), side effects can range from anxiety, tremors and palpitations to nausea, hoarseness, headache and restlessness, although cardiac effects are increasingly becoming less common.
Many oral medications are also used to treat the symptoms of asthma and may include: methylxanthines, expectorants and corticosteroids (for severe asthma). Depending on the medication, side effects run the gamut from nausea and vomiting to an increase in urination and heart rhythm problems. Please note that serious side effects are usually a result of high doses of the medications. Doses are almost always monitored by a physician.
Tips and Preventative Measures
- Consider getting a flu shot.
- Avoid animal dander.
- Avoid chemicals, sprays and strong odors.
- Avoid all smoke.
- Get to know your warning signs and cycles in order to determine when to begin additional treatment.
- When mold and pollen counts are high, try to stay indoors with air-conditioning.
- Try to reduce the amount of mold and dust in the home.
- Before exercise take preventative medication, if directed by your physician.
- Take maintenance medications on a regular basis, even if you’re feeling well.