Asthma is recognized as one of the most common chronic diseases in the United States. The good news is that although there is no cure for asthma, it can be controlled through appropriate medication use and environmental awareness.
Asthma is a long-term, inflammatory disease that causes the airways of the lungs to tighten and constrict, leading to wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing. The inflammation also causes the airways of the lungs to become especially sensitive to a variety of asthma triggers that make asthma worse. The particular triggers and the severity of symptoms can differ for each person with asthma.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that asthma affected 7 million children and 18.7 million adult Americans in 2010. According to the 2011 National Vital Statistics report, there were 3,388 primary asthma deaths in the United States in 2009. This is equal to nine American asthma deaths daily. One out of every ten school-age children has asthma, and it is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to a chronic condition.
Asthma typically begins during the childhood years, but it can be difficult to diagnose. I know because it has affected my own family. We learned that one of my sons had exercise-induced asthma only when he passed out at school after running a mile. Beginning with that experience, he started carrying an inhaler and is now an adult doing fine. Remember that children cannot always control their own environment, and may need you to advocate for them.
When people come in contact with an asthma trigger, it can cause a sudden worsening of symptoms. The American Lung Association has made the following suggestions to help reduce environmental asthma triggers for children and adults.
- Do your best to avoid respiratory and sinus infections; get a flu vaccine every year.
- Discuss any medicines or food allergies (such as peanuts and shellfish) you may have with your health care provider.
- Control sources of indoor air pollutants; avoid all types of smoke.
- Limit time outdoors during high pollen times of the year (spring and fall) and in extreme temperatures (summer and winter).
- Control animal allergens; vacuum and damp dust weekly and keep pets out of bedrooms.
- If prescribed, use quick-relief medicine 15-30 minutes before physical activity and monitor air quality if exercising outside.
- Control cockroach and pest allergens; reduce exposure to dust mites.
- Choose fragrance-free perfumes, deodorants, and cleaning supplies.
- Clean up mold and control moisture.
Finally, stress can be a significant trigger of asthma flare-ups. Emotions such as laughing or crying too hard, feeling anxious, angry, fearful, and yelling can trigger an asthma episode. Your health care provider can help you recognize what makes your asthma worse and help you find solutions.
Jim McVay, Dr.P.A., is director of the Bureau of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease of the Alabama Department of Public Health.