A Guide to Asthma – What you need to know

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll unravel the enigma of asthma, diving deep into its causes, symptoms and the latest treatments available.

Asthma affects airways in the lungs
Asthma affects airways in the lungs


What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that can transform the essence of life – breathing – into a daily struggle for millions worldwide. But what exactly is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways, where the bronchial tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs become overly sensitive and prone to narrowing, making it difficult to breathe. Imagine your airways as a bustling two-way street, facilitating the constant flow of traffic that is the oxygen you breathe. Now picture this street narrowing suddenly and unpredictably, with an invisible force causing congestion and making it harder for traffic to flow smoothly. That’s what happens during an asthma attack, as the muscles surrounding the airways tighten, the lining of the airways becomes inflamed and swollen and excess mucus clogs the passageways.

The triggers for asthma can be as diverse as the individuals it affects. From environmental irritants like pollen, dust mites and pet dander to respiratory infections, cold air or even physical activity, there’s no shortage of culprits that can provoke asthma symptoms.

These symptoms can vary in intensity, manifesting as shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing and coughing, and can range from mildly annoying to severely debilitating or even life-threatening.

Although there’s no known cure for asthma, it can be effectively managed through medication, trigger avoidance and self-monitoring. By understanding the intricacies of asthma, we can better navigate its challenges, helping those who live with it to breathe a little easier.

What does asthma feel like?

Asthma can feel different for different people, but common symptoms include:

  • Wheezing: A whistling or hissing sound when you breathe out.
  • Shortness of breath: A feeling like you can’t catch or take a deep breath.
  • Chest tightness: A feeling of pressure or tightness in the chest.
  • Coughing: This is more common at night or early in the morning.
  • Difficulty breathing: A feeling like you’re suffocating or can’t get enough air.
  • Asthma Attack: During an asthma attack, all these symptoms may become more severe and can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety or panic. If you experience this, it is vital to seek medical attention immediately.
Coughing may become more severe
Coughing may become more severe

What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms that can be frightening and even life-threatening in severe cases.

During an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs become more inflamed, swollen and constricted, making breathing difficult. This can cause symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath to become more severe.

Symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • Rapid breathing.
  • Difficulty speaking or walking.
  • A bluish tint to the lips or fingernails.
  • Extreme anxiety or confusion.

It is essential to have an asthma action plan to manage and prevent asthma attacks. This plan should be developed with your healthcare provider and may include medications, such as inhalers or nebulisers and lifestyle changes to help control symptoms and prevent triggers.

What triggers asthma?

Asthma is triggered by various factors, including:

  • Allergens: Substances such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander and mould can trigger an allergic reaction and cause asthma symptoms.
  • Irritants: Smoke, air pollution, strong odours and chemicals can irritate the airways and trigger asthma.
  • Respiratory infections: Viruses such as the common cold or flu can cause inflammation in the airways.
  • Exercise: Physical activity can cause the airways to narrow, especially in people with exercise-induced asthma.
  • Cold air: Breathing in cold air can cause the airways to narrow.
  • Emotions: Strong emotions such as stress, anxiety or excitement can trigger asthma symptoms.
  • Medications: Some medications such as aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and beta-blockers can trigger asthma in some people.

Working with your healthcare provider to identify your specific asthma triggers, and to develop a personalised treatment plan to help manage and prevent asthma symptoms, is essential.

Air pollution can trigger asthma
Air pollution can trigger asthma

What causes asthma?

The underlying causes of asthma are not completely understood, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Some people may be born with a genetic predisposition to develop asthma, and exposure to specific environmental triggers can lead to asthma symptoms.

Research also suggests that inflammation plays a key role in the development of asthma, causing the airways to become inflamed and more sensitive to specific triggers.

Other factors that may contribute to the development of asthma include:

  • Exposure to allergens: Early exposure to allergens, such as dust mites or pet dander, can increase the risk of developing asthma.
  • Exposure to pollution: Air pollution, particularly in urban areas, has been linked to an increased risk of developing asthma.
  • Respiratory infections: Children who experience frequent respiratory infections, such as colds or the flu, may be more likely to develop asthma.
  • Obesity: Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of developing asthma.
  • Smoking: Smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke can increase the risk of developing asthma.

While the exact causes of asthma are still being studied, it is clear that a combination of genetic and environmental factors plays a role in its development.

Can you develop asthma?

Yes, it is possible to develop asthma at any age, although it is more common to develop it in childhood.

Adult-onset asthma is more common in women than men and can be triggered by hormonal changes, stress and other factors more common in adults.

In addition, some people may have had asthma as a child that went undiagnosed or was mild and then experienced a worsening of symptoms later in life.

If you are experiencing asthma symptoms, such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or shortness of breath, it is important to see a healthcare provider for an evaluation and proper diagnosis. Early diagnosis and treatment can help manage symptoms and prevent complications.

Second hand smoke can trigger asthma
Second hand smoke can trigger asthma

How is asthma diagnosed?

Asthma is typically diagnosed through a physical exam, medical history and diagnostic tests. Here are some of the typical steps involved in a diagnosis:

  • Medical history: Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, when they occur, how often and if any triggers worsen them. They will also ask about your personal and family medical history.
  • Physical exam: Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam to listen to your lungs and check for signs of asthma or other respiratory conditions.
  • Lung function tests: Your healthcare provider may perform lung function tests to measure how much air you can breathe in and out, how fast you can breathe and how much air is left in your lungs after you exhale. The most common test is spirometry, which involves blowing into a spirometer device.
  • Peak flow monitoring: This test involves using a peak flow meter to measure how fast you can blow air out of your lungs. It can be done at home to monitor your symptoms and help determine if your asthma is under control.
  • Allergy testing: Your healthcare provider may perform allergy testing to determine if allergens trigger your asthma.
  • Other tests: Your healthcare provider may order tests, such as a chest X-ray or blood tests, to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.

If your healthcare provider determines that you have asthma, they will work with you to develop a personalised treatment plan to manage your symptoms and prevent complications.

Staying physically active can help
Staying physically active can help

How do you treat asthma?

Asthma can be managed and treated with medications and lifestyle changes. Here are some of the common treatments for asthma:

  • Inhaled bronchodilators: These medications, such as short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs), work by relaxing the muscles around the airways, making breathing easier. They are often used to treat symptoms during an asthma attack.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids: These medications reduce inflammation in the airways, which can help prevent asthma symptoms. They are often used as a long-term controller medication to prevent symptoms from occurring.
  • Combination inhalers: These medications contain both a bronchodilator and a corticosteroid and are used for the long-term control of asthma symptoms.
  • Oral medications: In some cases, oral medications such as leukotriene modifiers or theophylline may be used to control symptoms.
  • Immunomodulators: These medications, such as omalizumab, modify the immune system’s response to allergens and can be used to treat severe asthma.
  • Lifestyle changes: Lifestyle changes such as avoiding triggers, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and staying physically active can help manage asthma symptoms.

It’s essential to work with your healthcare provider to develop a personalised treatment plan based on the severity and frequency of your symptoms. They can also provide education and resources on using medications and monitoring your symptoms at home. In severe cases, hospitalisation or emergency treatment may be necessary.

How does diet affect asthma?

Diet can have both positive and negative effects. Here are some ways in which diet can impact asthma:

  • Obesity: – Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of developing asthma and worsen symptoms in people with asthma. Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight can help manage asthma symptoms.
  • Food allergies: In some cases, certain foods can trigger asthma symptoms in people with food allergies. Identifying and avoiding these triggers through allergy testing and dietary changes is essential.
  • Vitamin D: Low vitamin D levels have been associated with an increased risk of asthma and more severe asthma symptoms. Vitamin D can be obtained from foods such as fatty fish, egg yolks and fortified dairy products, or through supplements.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium has been shown to have a broncho-dilating effect, which can help relax the muscles in the airways and make breathing easier. Foods high in magnesium include leafy green vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, have anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit people with asthma. Some studies have suggested that omega-3 supplementation may help improve lung function and reduce asthma symptoms.
  • Quercetin: Quercetin is a flavonoid found in fruits and vegetables with anti-inflammatory properties and may improve lung function in people with asthma.
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, can help reduce inflammation in the airways and improve lung function in people with asthma. Foods high in antioxidants include fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Overall, a healthy diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods can help manage asthma symptoms and improve overall health. Working with your healthcare provider or a registered nutritionist is advised to develop a personalised diet plan that meets your individual needs and goals.

While some supplements may benefit people with asthma, it’s important to note that supplements should never replace prescribed asthma medications or treatment plans.

It’s always important to talk to your healthcare provider before starting new supplements or changing your treatment plan.

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