It starts with a cough. or a wheeze soon your chest feels tight, your breathing speeds up and gets shallower making you feel short of breath. These are the common symptoms of an asthma attack.
Around the world, more than 300 million people suffer from asthma, and around 250 thousand people die from it. But why do people get asthma and how can this disease be deadly?
Asthma affects the respiratory system, particularly the smaller airways, such as the bronchi and bronchioles. These airways have an inner lining called the mucosa that surrounded by a layer of smooth muscle. In people with asthma, the airways are chronically inflamed, which can make them hyper-responsive to certain triggers. Some of the asthma triggers include tobacco smoke, dust, fragrances, exercise, cold weather, stress and even the common cold.
When people with asthma are exposed to these triggers, an asthma attack or exacerbation can occur. But how exactly do such everyday factor lead to an asthmatic attack? if an asthmatic is exposed to a trigger, the smooth ring of muscle that circles the small airways in the lungs contract and becomes narrow.
Simultaneously, the trigger worsens inflammation, causing the mucosal lining to become more swollen and secrete more mucus. Under normal condition, the body uses this mucus to trap and clear particles like dust. But during an asthma attack, it blocks the narrow airways making it even harder to breathe.
These effects lead to the symptoms of asthma. Smooth muscle constriction results in the feeling of chest tightness. Excess mucus and increased inflammation can cause coughing, and the wheezing noise, that happens because the airways constrict. Air whistles as it passes through the narrow space. These symptoms may make a person feel like they are running out of air.
Yet counterintuitively, the inflammation can make it even harder to exhale and inhale. Over time, this leads to the excess of air in lungs, a phenomenon known as hyperinflation. The trapping of air inside the lungs forces the body to work harder to move air in and out of them. This can lead to reduced oxygen delivery to the body organs and tissues.Sometimes in untreated severe asthma attacks, the body can’t keep up, which can lead to death from the lack of oxygen.
So how do we prevent this uncomfortable and potentially fatal attacks in people who have asthma?
One way is to reduce the presence of triggers. Unfortunately, the world is an unpredictable place and the exposure to triggers can’t always be controlled. This is where inhalers, the primary treatment for asthma come in. These medications help asthmatics for control and prevent their asthma symptoms. Inhalers transport medication along with the affected airways, using a liquid mist or fine powder to treat the problem at its source.
They come in two forms. There are reliever medications, which treat symptoms immediately and contain beta-agonists. Beta-agonists relax constricted muscles, allowing the airways to widen so more air can travel into and out of the lungs. The other form of inhaler serves as preventive medication which treats asthma symptoms in the long term and contains corticosteroids.
Corticosteroids reduce airway sensitivity and inflammation so asthma can be kept under controlled. They are also crucial in preventing long term damage from chronic inflammation which can cause scarring of the airways. Inhalers are known to be very effective and have helped many people live better lives. Although we’ve come a long way in improving how we treat and diagnose asthma, we still don’t know its exact causes.
We currently believe the combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role, potentially acting during early childhood. Recent research has even linked poverty to asthma incidence. This may be reasons due to exposure to additional pollutants and environmental irritants to difficulties in obtaining medical care or treatment. As our understanding of asthma improves, we can continue to find better ways to keep people’s airways happy and healthy!
Read previous blog post about stroke here.