Asthma: Definition, Causes, Treatment

What is asthma?

Asthma is a condition linked to sensitive airways. It makes the air passages in your lungs prone to inflammation whenever they make contact with irritants known as asthma triggers.

Specifically, three bodily reactions are associated with this condition:

  • Narrowing of airways caused by tightening of the wall muscles
  • Inflammation and swelling of airway lining
  • Build-up of phlegm that can exacerbate the narrowing of airways

These reactions result in laboured breathing, coughing, wheezing and/or chest tightness. Luckily, asthmatics have a range of inhaler style treatment to help quickly alleviate the onset of symptoms, or prevent the condition from flaring up long-term.

What causes asthma?

Asthma is a response to reactions caused by particular triggers, which can vary depending on the individual. The body reacts to a potential ‘threat’ when there is no need, which cause the symptoms to materialise. It is essential to be aware of the triggers that affect you to minimise your risk of experiencing an asthma attack.

The most common triggers for asthma are as follows:

  • Allergies: Exposure to allergens through inhalation can trigger an asthma episode. Limiting contact with them is the best policy for reducing/preventing the onset of symptoms. Common asthma inducing allergens include pollens, dust mites, cockroaches, pet dander, rodents and mould.
  • Respiratory illnesses: Conditions such as sore throat, flu, cold, pneumonia and sinus infections are the most frequently observed trigger among asthmatic children.
  • Air irritants: Certain substances present in the environment can bring about an asthma attack even if you’re not allergic to them. These include cigarette smoke; wood/charcoal fire; strong scents, odours and vapours e.g. perfumes, paint, petrol; dusty particles; chemicals and air pollution.
  • Exercise: Activities that cause you to breathe more rapidly, particularly in cold air, frequently cause asthma bouts. You may not experience any symptoms until after you’ve indulged in the activity for several minutes. Taking an appropriate asthma treatment can mitigate these attacks, leaving you free to enjoy your physical activity.
  • Medicine: Medicines such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin can start an asthma episode. Beta-blockers, on the other hand, are a class of medicines that can make the condition difficult to manage even with its medication.
  • Weather: Cold air, dry wind or rapidly changing weather can all trigger asthma.
  • Experiencing strong emotions: Expressing or feeling fear, excitement, anger, amusement or sadness can result in rapid changes in your breathing pattern; if you’re an asthma patient, this can sometimes trigger an attack.
  • Other triggers: You’ll also need to consider other triggers that could include hormonal changes in females, reflux, and sulphites present in food etc.

Research has shown that besides environmental factors, asthma can be caused by genetics. The genes associated with it are responsible for managing your immune system and inflammation (hence the effect allergens can have on asthma patients).

How can I treat asthma?

As discussed above, there are several different kinds of triggers for asthma, and the first step to treating this condition is a thorough discussion with your doctor about the triggers responsible for your attacks. You must be open about your lifestyle to the doctor to help them identify as many of your triggers (preferably all) as possible.

Once these triggers have been identified, the doctor will advise you on the best possible treatment that can be implemented in your case. Normally, this is a combination of avoiding your triggers, undergoing medicinal therapy and having a contingency plan prepared for sudden, severe attacks.

You may also be instructed to keep an eye on your condition by means of a peak flow meter: this handheld device indicates the volume of air that your lungs can push. If the value is low, it indicates insufficient/ineffective treatment; the doctor will alter your treatment plan to improve it.

What are the benefits of treating asthma?

The causes of asthma have eluded scientists so far, but through proper treatment the symptoms are fully controllable.

Even if you’re apprehensive about the costs that treatment would incur, it is vital that you see an expert before reaching a conclusion. The expert can give you a fuller insight into your specific situation, which will help you decide whether dedicated medicinal treatment is feasible (or indeed required).

If you’re the parent of a young child suffering from asthma episodes that occur several days in a week, and one or two times during the night each month, it is highly recommended that you seek adequate treatment from a specialist so that any adverse effect on the growing child’s lifestyle, both physical and emotional, can be avoided.

While it is true that some people with mild cases of asthma can cope with their condition simply by avoiding triggers, most patients will require some form of medicine to control their asthma so they can enjoy physically intensive/outdoor activities without fear of a sudden episode.

What options are available to treat asthma?

Asthma treatments involve controlling symptoms and minimising the possibility of their occurrence. Many asthmatics require two types of treatments: quick-relief medication (reliever inhalers) and long-term medicinal treatment (preventer inhalers).

  • Quick Relief Medication: There are two kinds of quick relief medicines that have to be taken as soon as symptoms begin to appear: anticholinergics and short acting bet2-agoinsts. Both work by expanding your lungs’ airways to improve the inflow and outflow of air, thereby alleviating the asthma attack. If you experience asthma symptoms after doing exercise, you may have to take quick-relief medicines before starting exercise. These are more commonly known as reliever inhalers.

The most common method of consuming quick relief medicine for asthma is through inhalation, using inhalers and nebulizers. Other methods such as syrups and injections may be prescribed by a doctor as required.

  • Long-Term Medication: Quick relief medicines can only control the symptoms when they sporadically occur; they don’t address the underlying cause of asthma. For that, you must take long-term medicine. Taken daily (even when symptoms are not being experienced), they will minimise the inflammation of your airways i.e. the root cause of asthma, so the frequency of your episodes gets reduced overtime.

Common long-term treatments for asthma include cromolyn sodium or nedocromil, long-acting beta2-agonists, inhaled/oral corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers or antileukotrienes, immunomodulators and methylxanthines.

  • Immunotherapy: This can be of two types: sublingual tablets and allergy shots. Those who suffer from allergy-induced asthma should discuss getting allergy shots with their allergist. This treatment, observed for several years, builds up tolerance in your immune system for the allergens that trigger your asthma.

The use of sublingual tablets (tablets placed under your tongue) for immunotherapy received FDA approval in 2014. You have to start taking these some months prior to allergy season, for up to three consecutive years. For now, this method is only effective against a few allergens and is not recommended for extreme asthmatics.