Recent developments in the treatment of asthma have brought good news to
the two to three million Britons who suffer from this chronic respiratory
disease, causing attacks of breathlessness, coughing and wheezing.
Although asthma is incurable, new
drug therapies can actually prevent
attacks. Research that shows the
benefits of exercise is allowing
asthmatics to enjoy active lives. In
addition, those who suffer asthma
attacks after exertion can learn to
minimize their effects through using
simple breathing techniques or even
by avoiding certain foods.
What is Asthma ?
An asthma attack is an abnormal respiratory reaction to one or more
irritants. It usually begins suddenly, and may be mild and transitory, or
severe enough to require emergency treatment. In an attack, there is a
constriction of the trachea and the connecting network of bronchial tubes.
The smooth muscle surrounding the small bronchioles deep in the
lungs goes into spasm, the membranes lining the bronchioles swell and secretions
of mucus in the tubes increase. Air flow to and from the lungs is reduced,
resulting in coughing, wheezing and a general shortness of breath.
An asthma attack makes it more
difficult to exhale than inhale, which
leads to a build-up of stale air in the
air sacs or alveoli, causing them to
overstretch. Repeated attacks can
damage the alveoli, which diminishes lung capacity and may eventually lead to emphysema or other
pulmonary disorders. About 2,000
people die annually from asthma in
the U.K., and this number has
actually increased in recent years.
Who Gets Asthma ?
Asthmatics are sensitive to a number
of irritants that cause no respiratory
distress in most people. In many
cases, asthma is an allergic response.
While a single, specific cause cannot
always be found, common irritants
are pollen, dust, animal dander,
feathers, mould spores, cigarette
smoke, chemicals, flour, drugs and
certain foods. One tenth of all asthmatics are children; attacks may get
less frequent as a child grows.
Asthma can also be precipitated at any age by respiratory infections,
strenuous exercise or sudden exposure to cold air. In recent years,
there has been a worldwide increase
in hospital admissions for asthma
attacks in children under 14, which
may be the result of air pollution.
While it has been speculated that
asthma is emotionally induced, current research does not support this
theory. An upset, however, might
bring on an attack in someone who
already has asthma.
How to Minimize the
Effects of Asthma
An accurate diagnosis is an important first step to effective management.
Determining just what triggers asthma in an individual is not always easy or
possible, since there might he a whole constellation of irritants. If the
triggers are known, the obvious step is to avoid them. This is done easily
enough with many contained allergens, such as foods,
feathers and animal dander.
Controlling asthma is much more difficult if the triggers are
environmentally produced, such as dust and pollen. In such cases, asthmatics
must do their best to minimize exposure by getting rid of dust collectors such as scatter rugs and venetian
blinds. Allergic reactions such as hay
fever can sometimes be corrected by
a series of desensitizing injections,
but the practice is now rare in the
United Kingdom because they occasionally cause death. If an allergen
is in your work environment, you
may have to change jobs or adjust
your schedule to avoid the irritant.
Moving to another climate is not
recommended in most cases, since
asthma can occur anywhere.
Exercise-induced asthma (EIA)
can result in susceptible individuals
after exertion. In the past, doctors
told patients with EIA to avoid exercise altogether. Recent research
has shown, however, that asthmatics
can safely tolerate increased activity
with medication, yet with a decrease
in the severity of their attacks.
You can often minimize the effects of EIA by exercising in warm,
humid environments, and warming
up adequately. Many asthmatics can
swim without symptoms; walking
and cycling are less likely to cause
attacks than running. If continuous
exercise precipitates attacks, try
stop-start sports such as tennis.
Others can reduce the severity of
their attacks by breathing slowly
through their noses, thus preventing
hyperventilation, which is often
linked with the onset of EIA. In
addition, researchers have noted that
certain foods, especially shellfish,
celery and peanuts, eaten before exercising, have been linked with the onset of
asthma attacks. Aspirin, too, should be avoided.
Drugs are frequently required to prevent attacks as well as reduce their
severity. Bronchodilators, which can be taken orally, inhaled or injected,
are used to prevent or minimize attacks by increasing the diameter of air
passages and easing the exchange of air in your lungs. Some may require an
inhalant called cromolyn, which desensitizes you to allergens.
Asthmatics also report improvements from reducing stress and practising
relaxation techniques. By lessening anxiety, these techniques help reduce
the severity of attacks.