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What is Inflammation of the Airways?

What causes inflammation?

Inflammation in the body is mediated by a cascade of events, often preceded by the production of histamine. Histamine is a chemical that is released during an allergic reaction. This can occur due to exposure to chemicals or an environmental allergen. Once that cascade occurs, the body sets in motion a number of factors which can cause swelling of tissues, which is one of the primary effects of inflammation. Once that swelling occurs, it can cause decreased space in the airway as the airway will narrow, and that leads to problems that are associated with what we call asthma.  

Normal breathing vs. asthmatic breathing 

During normal breathing, the bands of muscle that surround the airways are relaxed and air moves freely. But in people with asthma, allergy-causing substances, colds and respiratory viruses, and environmental triggers make the bands of muscle surrounding the airways tighten, and air cannot move freely. Less air causes a person to feel short of breath, and the air moving out through the tightened airways causes a whistling sound known as wheezing.

Types of inflammation

Some types of inflammation last for only a brief while and go away when the cause of the irritation is eliminated. However, other types of inflammation can last for months, years or even a lifetime. Inflammation can occur in different parts of the body, and these different types of inflammation are conditions known as the following:

  • In consideration of inflammation of the skin, psoriasis is an example of a long-lasting or chronic inflammation.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints of the body.
  • An important medical discovery several years ago was that some inflammation is present in the bronchial tubes of persons with asthma, even when they feel well and when their breathing is normal.

Sometimes, there are cases of chronic inflammation in which the cause is not known, although in many instances inflammation has the appearance of an allergic type of reaction. The inflammation may be mild, so mild that it does not cause narrowing of the bronchial tubes. But the persistent or chronic presence of the inflammation is probably what makes the bronchial tubes capable of narrowing abnormally.

The bronchial tubes in asthma are said to be "twitchy" or easily sent into spasm or narrowing. What makes the bronchial tubes "twitchy" or vulnerable to a variety of stimuli in the world around us-whether it be dust or exercise or cat dander or cold air-is thought to be the persistent presence of inflammation in the bronchial tubes.

Reducing asthmatic inflammation

We do not yet know how to turn off the inflammation of asthma. There are, however, two principal ways to reduce it. The first is to identify the triggers that are stimulating the inflammation in the first place and to rid them from the environment, meaning generally from the air that we breathe. Some things, like cigarette smoke and air pollution, are likely to worsen the inflammation of the bronchial tubes in anyone with asthma. Other things, like cat dander or house dust, cause asthmatic inflammation only in those persons who are specifically allergic to cats or dust. Sometimes allergy testing is used to identify those things to which an individual is allergic with the goal of reducing or eliminating the amount of exposure to them. 

If you are having difficulty breathing and believe you may have asthma, see a doctor who can help determine if you are experiencing inflammation in the airways.