Breathing is one of the most basic functions that determines life. Asthma is a serious disease that impacts the airways of the lungs. Airways are important to perform the exchange of air in the lungs. Asthma causes an inflammation of the airways. Due to certain triggers, the muscles around the airways tighten up in a way that could make the air movement difficult. This difficulty of air movement could cause symptoms like wheezing, breathlessness, or tightness of the chest.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is the frequent experiencing of symptoms associated with breathing distress like wheezing, a whistling sound heard in the chest as one inhales. Asthma essentially causes the airways or the bronchial tubes that pass air to the lungs to narrow down as the air enters or leaves. This narrowing of the airways may result due to various triggers that one is sensitive to. When exposed to conditions when the breathing patterns undergo alterations, persons suffering from asthma are likely to suffer more.
Asthma is a very common medical condition affecting as many as 26 million Americans — 19 million adults and 7 million children. It is one of the primary causes and is one of the leading causes of absences from work and school. Asthma generally runs in the family and is normally triggered when the genetic factors interact with the environmental factors. There is no definitive cure for asthma; however, the condition can be effectively managed. To treat asthma, one should consult with an allergist. Asthma can get considerably serious when left unmanaged. When asthma is not managed well through the regular exercises and medications, it can often require emergency visits to the hospital emergency room.
There are two types of asthma: allergic (caused by exposure to an allergen) and nonallergic (caused by stress, exercise, illnesses like a cold or the flu, or exposure to extreme weather, irritants in the air, or some medications).
Asthma has three primary features associated with it:
- Airway obstruction: As one normally breathes, the muscular bands which are circular discs around the bronchial tubes relax, which causes the air to pass through freely and easily. However, in the case of asthmatics, small triggers or a contact with allergens, colds, the flu, or any respiratory viral attacks can make the bands around the airways tighten, which restricts the free movement of air. Lack of air can lead to shortness of breath. As the air moves around the tightened airways, it gives rise to a whistling sound or wheezing.
- Inflammation: If you are suffering from asthma, you are likely to have bronchial tubes that are red and often inflamed. This swelling of the airways is often known to cause long-term damage to the lungs due to asthma. Hence, to manage asthma, the doctors concentrate on reducing the inflammation of the airways, which are largely responsible for air obstructions and breathing discomfort.
- Irritation of the airways: People suffering from asthma have highly sensitive airways. These sensitive airways tend to cause an overreaction and severe narrowing with the slightest of triggers, like pollen dust, animal dander, dust, or other pollutants.
Risk Factors Associated with Asthma
There are various factors or risks that are associated with asthma and cause some people to be inclined to the disease. These risk factors are common for asthma and certain other respiratory diseases, too. Asthma can even get triggered when one is not exposed to any of the risk factors; however, when one is exposed to these factors, the chances of developing asthma are generally higher.
Here are some of the common risk factors that are associated with asthmatics. These cause the patients to develop certain asthma symptoms, like persistent coughing, breathing difficulties, and severe wheezing. While some of the risk factors are very much in the control of the patients to manage, there are other factors, like family history or gender, of which the patient has little or no control. The best way to manage your disease and symptoms are by analyzing the risk factors and understanding the ones that you can control and consciously manage them.
- Gender factors: Instances of childhood asthma are seen more in the case of boys as compared to girls. Though the exact reason for this unknown, experts suggest that the airway size in the case of boys is much smaller and narrower as compared to females. This puts them at a greater risk of wheezing after catching a cold or other forms of viral infections. At around 20 years of age, the chances of developing asthma are the same for both males and females. While at around 40 years of age, females have greater susceptibility to developing asthma compared to male adults.
- Genetic factors: Our genes largely determine what we are and what kind of medical conditions we could have. You could blame your parents and sometimes even grandparents for illnesses like asthma that are largely inherited in the genes. The genetic inheritance largely predisposes you to develop conditions like asthma. In fact, research reports that as many as three-fifths of asthma cases reported are hereditary and acquired through the genes. If a parent has asthma, the child is three to six times more prone to acquiring the disease as compared to a child whose parents do not have asthma.
- Atopy: Atopy is referred to as a tendency of developing conditions like eczema, atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, and asthma. This tendency is usually transmitted in a person’s genes. An atopy usually triggers extreme sensitivity to certain allergens, both common and uncommon, that area found in food, air, and the general environment. It is commonly seen that children suffering from eczema or atopic dermatitis have a tendency to develop asthma. According to certain findings, children who suffer from conditions like atopic dermatitis could develop severe asthma young or as they turn into adults.
- Allergies: Allergies and asthma go hand in hand. Allergies, like indoor allergies, are often a risk factor for developing asthma in some people. According to some studies, bacterial toxins known as endotoxins, which are found in the house dust, are often associated with asthma and its symptoms. There are various sources of indoor allergies including pets, dust mites, fungi, cockroaches, etc.
- Environmental factors: Air pollution caused by pollutants like cigarette smoking, fumes from household chemical-based cleaners, paints, etc. can lead to various allergic reactions that in turn can trigger asthma in some people. Other factors that are prevalent in the atmosphere around us, including pollution from vehicles and factories, sulfur dioxide levels, other chemicals present in the atmosphere, ozone, and high levels of humidity, are all known to trigger asthma in a number of people. In fact, as the world moves toward industrialization, there have been increasing episodes of asthma due to air pollution. Gas stoves can also be a possible trigger for indoor pollution that can result in asthma. According to research, people who cook with gas are more prone to symptoms of wheezing, breathlessness, asthma, and hay fever compared to those who use other methods of cooking. Changes in the weather can also cause asthma in a few people. For example, winters bring with them the chilled and cold air that causes airway congestion, resulting in excessive mucus production and hence the wheezing and inflammation of airways. Increased humidity can also bring with it breathing issues in some people.
- Obesity: Asthma is more commonly seen in people who are obese or overweight. This is because the increased weight puts extra pressure on the lungs, causing difficulties in breathing.
- Pregnancy: Mothers who smoke during their pregnancy can put their babies at higher risk of developing asthma. Premature births could also be a resulting factor that increases the risks of developing asthma.
- Smoking: Studies have repeatedly shown a deep connection between the risk of developing asthma for those who smoke. Smoking is a major contributor to the risk of developing asthma in a number of people, including adolescents and teenagers.
There are many possible risk factors that could lead to the development of asthma. While some of the factors can be mitigated, others are unmanageable. However, if asthma does develop, it is very manageable.
- Asthma is mainly triggered by an inflammation of the airways that obstruct the exchange of air in the lungs.
- Although there is no cure for asthma, it can certainly be managed.
- Asthma that is left unmanaged could turn serious and become an emergency requiring hospitalization.