Mention the word “asthma” and most people will be able to tell you what it is: shortness of breath, usually accompanied by wheezing, or noisy breathing. This is not a surprise, considering the high prevalence of the disease. In Singapore alone, asthma affects 5% of adults, and 20% of children. If properly managed, most asthmatics do continue to enjoy a good quality of life. However, if left untreated, there can be permanent damage done on the lungs, and might even prove fatal.
So can you say you truly know what asthma is? And if you are suffering from it, are you aware of the triggers and possible methods to relieve or prevent an asthma attack?
What is Asthma
Asthma is a respiratory condition that is characterised by chronic inflammation of the airways in the lungs. Compared to a healthy person, an asthmatic will usually have narrowed and swollen airways, which sometimes “spasm”, or contract involuntarily. They also have increased mucus or phlegm production, all of which coming together, do not allow an asthmatic to breathe normally.
As mentioned above, asthma is a chronic condition, and if managed properly, the symptoms are manageable or even unnoticeable. However asthma attacks do occur, which is when the symptoms get worse, and can be life-threatening if not managed properly.
Signs & Symptoms Associated With Asthma
Asthma affects everyone differently. Some people may find it very minor, whereas for others, it can be a life-debilitating health condition. Here are some of the signs and symptoms associated with asthma.
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing or noisy breathing
- Sensation of tightness in the chest
- Recurrent cough, especially at night or in the early morning
- Colds that last more than 10 days
The severity of this condition is also affected by the frequency of asthma attacks, which are often a result of triggers, depending on the type of asthma you have.
Types Of Asthma
With the knowledge of the type of asthma you suffer from, you can effectively avoid the triggers that may lead to an attack.
Allergic asthma: People with this type of asthma are especially sensitive to certain allergens (substances that trigger the immune system and cause an allergic reaction) which can activate their symptoms of asthma. Triggers include dust and dust mites, pests (e.g. cockroaches), pollen, mould, pet dander, and even some food. Keeping a diary of triggers you notice along the way will help greatly in your efforts to avoid these allergens. Minimising build-up of allergens can also be done by cleaning your living space regularly e.g. washing bed sheets and pillowcases weekly in hot water, or bathing your pet at least once a week.
Non-allergic asthma: As the name itself suggests, this type of asthma is not triggered by allergens. Triggers for this group include and are not limited to cold air, smoke, pollutants in the air, perfumes, domestic cleaning products, viral infections and even stress.
Occupational asthma: People with this type of asthma usually work in a workplace where they are around chemical fumes, dyes, industrial waste and other irritants in the air. Symptoms usually improve with time away from work.
Exercise-induced asthma: This type of asthma is only induced when a person is involved in physical activity, during which the air rapidly entering the lungs is usually colder and drier, causing symptoms of asthma. It usually occurs within a few minutes of vigorous exercise, and terminates within 10-15 minutes of rest.
Aspirin-induced asthma: Also known as aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease (AERD), this type of asthma is usually more severe. It is caused by aspirin or some other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine usually used for pain. The symptoms may last from a few minutes to hours.
Nocturnal asthma: Symptoms worsen at night for asthmatics of this type. It can be caused by allergens (e.g. dust mites, house pets), but also, by the body’s natural sleep cycle.
Cough-variant asthma: This is different from the rest of the other asthma types since it does not include the general symptoms of asthma such as shortness of breath and wheezing. Rather, it is characterised by a persistent, dry cough.
Possible Treatments For Asthma
This is the most natural way to address asthma. Be aware of different breathing exercises that may help boost your lung capacity to inhale and exhale efficiently. Apart from that, breathing exercises may also help reduce anxiety and stress, in turn preventing asthma attacks. A general physician can help teach you these exercises.
There are many medications in the market that provide relief for the symptoms of asthma. However, the most frequently used types are in the form of an inhalation, so that the medicines get direct access to the airways. There are two main types of inhalers for the treatment of asthma: preventers and relievers. Preventers are long-acting formulations which require consistent use, whereas relievers are short-acting formulations, advised to be used on a when-needed basis based on worsening symptoms. These inhalers work by reducing airway inflammation, and relaxing the muscles in the airways, minimising the contraction that inhibits airflow.
There are other medications, administered orally, that are also available to treat asthma that can be prescribed by a doctor based on the severity and type of disease.
In this mode of treatment, an electrode provides heat to the airways of the lungs of a person with very severe asthma not responding to pharmacological treatment. This helps reduce the muscle mass in the tight airways, reducing the narrowing. However, it is not widely available as more data is still required to determine the efficacy and safety of this mode of treatment.
Living Well With Asthma
Asthma cannot be cured, but you can practice the following recommendations to control your symptoms and minimise the risk of developing an asthma attack.
- Get yourself vaccinated for flu and pneumonia since these conditions can aggravate asthma.
- Avoid your triggers or reduce your exposure to them e.g. clean your living space, quit smoking, manage your stress.
- Take your medications regularly. Do not stop taking your medication even after your symptoms improve without the advice of a doctor.
The simple act of breathing should not be difficult for anyone. With education and proper management with your primary doctor, it is not impossible for people with asthma to lead normal lives.