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What is Asthma?

The word asthma comes from the Greek word aazein, which means "sharp breath." Asthma is a disease of the lungs in which the airways narrow, often in response to a trigger such as exposure to an allergen, exercise, or emotional stress. As is the case with allergies, an over-sensitive immune system response causes the symptoms of asthma, and the prevalence of asthma in our society is rapidly increasing. Asthma affects up to one in four urban children. During an asthma attack, lung airways (bronchi) contract into a spasm, leading to inflammation, increased mucus production, coughing, wheezing, and other breathing problems.

The most effective treatment for asthma is to identify triggers, such as dust mites and pet dander, and limit or eliminate exposure to them.

Common Asthma Triggers:

  • Allergens - including dust, waste particles from dust mites and cockroaches, pollen, mold spores, and animal dander.
  • Medications - including aspirin and beta blockers.
  • Air Pollution - including ozone, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide.
  • Industrial Chemical Compounds - including sulfites and chloramines.
  • Early Childhood Infections - especially viral respiratory infections.
  • Perfumes and Strong Smells.
  • Cold Air.
  • Exercise.
  • Emotional Stress.

Pharmaceutical treatments for asthma include the use of bronchiodilators, medicines that open up the airways. They typically come in pocket-sized inhalers. Young patients who have problems using inhalers often use asthma spacers, which disperse the dose into a cylinder of air that is easier to breathe. Nebulizers vaporize the medicine and provide a larger, continuous dose that may be helpful to asthma sufferers experiencing severe attacks. Inhaled steroids are also used to treat patients who have frequent asthma attacks.

Genetic make-up plays a role in the development of asthma, but genetics can't explain the extreme spike in asthma cases over the last couple of decades. Some scientists think modern hygiene is to blame for asthma (and allergies): Our immune system was designed to fight off bacteria and viruses, but the immune system does not have as much work to do in today's developed world because of better public health, vaccinations, cleaner food and water, etc. Therefore, the immune system re-directs its energy and becomes more sensitive to other invaders that would normally be harmless, like pollen, dust, pet dander, and other allergens. Some scientists also postulate that asthma cases are on the rise because of increasing levels of man-made pollution.

Asthma Risk Factors:

  • Family history of asthma or allergies.
  • Elevated exposure to poor air quality and asthma triggers.
  • Premature birth or low birth weight.
  • Viral respiratory infection in early childhood.
  • Maternal smoking.
  • Being male increases your chance of asthma before puberty.
  • Being female increases the chance that asthma will persist into your adult years.

Asthma is normally diagnosed during childhood, and among asthma sufferers diagnosed during childhood, 54% will no longer have asthma after a decade. The mortality rate for asthma is relatively low. Asthma causes around 6,000 deaths per year in the United States (among about 10 million asthma sufferers). Better control and treatment could have prevented some of these deaths