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Overview of Asthma

separator When a person has an asthma attack, the airways become blocked or narrowed. Shortness of breath and other breathing problems are the result. The symptoms are almost always temporary and easily controlled. But sometimes the attacks are severe, and in some cases, emergency treatment is necessary.

Asthma triggers include

  • Cold air
  • Exercise
  • Non-toxic environmental irritants (dust mites, mold, pollen, animal dander, cockroach debris)
  • Toxic environmental irritants (paint fumes, smog, aerosol sprays, perfume, tobacco smoke)
  • Some viral infections

What Happens During an Asthma Attack?
Here’s how an asthma attack occurs: when an asthma trigger enters the airways, it goes from the trachea (windpipe) into a series of smaller tubes called the bronchi and bronchioles. The tissues inside these tubes become inflamed. The muscles on the outside of the airways tighten up, causing the airways to narrow. Then mucous enters the airways, and the airways become swollen. This swelling causes the airways to narrow even more. It’s easy to understand why this process makes it difficult to breathe.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association points out how effective it can be to reduce exposure to asthma triggers. During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, driving in the city was strictly limited for a 17-day period. Air pollution dropped. In that time, Medicaid claims for asthma-related emergency care visits and hospitalizations decreased by about 40 percent. Visits by HMO patients dropped by about 44 percent, and two large pediatric emergency departments reported an 11 percent decrease.

Asthma medications are typically grouped into two categories:

Long-term control medication

  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Cromolyn and Nedocromil
  • Theophylline, sustained release
  • Leukotriene modifiers
  • Long-acting beta agonists

Quick-relief medication

  • Short-acting beta-agonists
  • Systemic corticosteroids

If you have asthma, learning how to eliminate exposure to the trigger that causes the attacks is your best bet for controlling symptoms. Medications also play a crucial role in asthma management, which we’ll discuss in the next article.

Journal of the American Medical Association, June 2005
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