Asthma is a disease of the lungs that causes difficulty breathing. It is a very common disease in children, although some may have symptoms that persist throughout their lifetime. Others may develop it as an adult. The symptoms of asthma are wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and commonly a nighttime or early morning cough. Although the disease of asthma may not be always active, it is constantly present. It only becomes prevalent when the lungs become irritated. Unfortunately there is no cure for asthma, but there are a number of medications that can treat it. It is also commonly seen to run in family bloodlines.
All wheezing is not necessarily asthma, but common recurrences of these symptoms that are associated with the presence of upper respiratory infections may provide suspicion. Other triggers of asthma include respiratory allergies, inhalant exposures and, for some, physical exercise or exertion. Anyone with asthma should avoid tobacco smoke. There are tests such as spirometry or pulmonary function tests that can be ordered to help decide if asthma may be an underlying health problem.
The air channels in the lungs start with a large main airways, or bronchi. As these airways branch out through the lungs, the size becomes smaller and smaller until they terminate at the alveoli, similar to branches of a bare tree. When an acute asthma attack occurs, the airways in the lungs become inflamed, the airways congest and spasm making it difficult to breathe from restricted air flow. If triggers are recognized, avoidance is extremely important if possible. Some irritants cannot be avoided however, such as seasonal pollens.
There are medications for asthma. The initial treatment usually starts with “rescue” inhalers that are used when symptoms occur. These work by relaxing airway spasm and opening the channels. If the need for this medication continually increases over time, there are additional medications taken on a daily basis to help reduce flare ups from the start. These medications typically reduce chronic inflammation and airway spasm and thickening. These long term control medications do not help acute exacerbations, but many times can markedly reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. It is important for those taking asthma medication to use it properly. Some patients may reduce or stop their prescription when symptoms are controlled thinking their asthma is resolved, but put themselves at great risk for exacerbations of a potentially fatal disease with improper use of their prescriptions.
Bradford Croft, DO
East Flagstaff Family Medicine