What is Asthma and How it Works

Many people suffer from asthma or similar allergic reactions. The ‘global asthma report’ puts the number of people affected by asthma globally at roughly 334 million. It is estimated that in the UK alone, there are 5.4 million people who suffer from asthma, almost equally divided between children (1 in 11) and adults (1 in 12).  Similarly, according to statistics from the year 2016, 8.3% of the children in the USA had asthma. In this article, we look at what this fairly common and complex disease is all about and how it may be treated.

The first thing to understand is that the basic reason behind asthma is inflammation. Inflammation is the response of the body tissues to harmful agents, which may include bacterial infections, damaged cells, irritants, or pathogens. In essence, inflammation is part of the body’s defense system. The inflammation in any part of the body is associated with swelling around that area. Sometimes, the inflammatory response is not due to harmful but just benign or friendly agents. This is what happens in the case of asthma.  And the inflammation happens along the air pathway that is used in breathing air. Therefore, asthma is simply an inflammation of the air passage which can be caused by different triggers for different people.

People suffering from asthma display varying symptoms. Some people would just get a runny nose or minor sneezing and coughing. With some people, this can aggravate into more severe symptoms, even to the extent of having difficulty breathing. Because it makes breathing difficult, asthma can also and does cause death. The age groups which seem to be most affected by the disabling effects of asthma (including death) are children between the age of 10 and 14 and elderlies between the ages 75 and 79.

The factors that trigger asthmatic inflammation are also quite varied. Some potential allergens are mold, dust, and pollen. Although these do not harm our bodies, our body sometimes becomes very sensitive and tries to defend against such allergens as if they were extremely dangerous. For some people, an allergy against such airborne allergens can trigger asthma attacks.

Different factors contribute to people suffering from this disabling disease. Because the immune system’s response is genetically inherited, asthma may sometimes also be inherited. Studies have shown a correlation between family history of asthma and the likelihood of the children being affected by it. Similarly, if one of the identical twins has asthma, there is more likelihood of the other also suffering from it. The breathing of second-hand smoke has been found as a common factor between many asthma cases. Children who grow up in households where smoking is common to tend to have a chance of developing asthma. In addition to these main factors, there are some more that contribute to the development of asthma. Some relationship with asthma has been established with damp living conditions and the use of antibiotics and paracetamol as well, although the relationship is not of clear causality. Occupational factors have also been found to contribute to people developing asthma. Some high-risk occupations in this regard are baking, painting, and carpentry.

Due to the variety of factors that cause asthma as well as the triggers that result in an asthma attack and the severity of the attack, the problem is often treated according to a personalized plan. For some people, just preventing the triggers (e.g. wearing a mask when the air pollen count is high) is enough. For others, some sort of medication is needed either on a need-only or a regular basis. Some medicines only try to reduce the inflammation temporarily but don’t treat the underlying issue causing the inflammation. These are ‘reliever’ medicines that relax the muscles of the airway and stop them from contracting and blocking the passage of air. Continuously living in damp conditions should be avoided. Some research findings indicate a relationship between a balanced diet and reduced cases of asthma. Obesity and asthma have also been found to be correlated. A healthy and balanced diet is therefore one way to avoid asthma. Avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke also results in good lung health and is associated with a reduction in asthma occurrence. Lastly, in the case of occupational factors, exposure to chemicals and air pollutants should be minimized.

In conclusion, asthma is a fairly prevalent disease which is an incorrect or unnecessary activation of the body’s defense mechanism against harmless agents. The disease can cause varying symptoms in different people and because it is chronic, it is very difficult to completely cure. Different medications and preventative measures have to be employed to manage the disease and maintain the quality of life.

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