What is asthma?

Asthma is defined as the chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes, but what are the bronchial tubes? The lungs contain a bronchial system, which resembles an upside down tree. The bronchial system is responsible for taking air in and out of your lungs. The branches of this tree are called the bronchial tubes. When they become inflamed, it causes the airways to narrow and as a result it is harder to breathe. This narrowing is either completely or partially reversed with the application of treatments. Once the tubes are inflamed, they are at risk of becoming overly sensitive to irritants and pollutants. This sensitivity is called bronchial hyperactivity or BHR. The severity of BHR varies from person to person, but it is clear that people who suffer from allergies are more likely to have a greater degree of bronchial hyperactivity. Inflammation is the body's natural response to infection or injury. The problem with asthma is that this inflammation does not completely subside on its own. In the short term this can result in a series of asthma attacks and in the long term it can result in a thickening of the bronchial wall. If left untreated this can result in a fixed narrowing of the bronchial tubes that is called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Every person with asthma reacts differently and everyone is unique in the way that they can react to environmental triggers, such as allergens, cigarette smoke, irritants or exertion.
What causes an asthma attack?
The causes of asthma are dependant on the individual. The severity of asthma is dependant on how many allergens and irritants trigger the inflammation. Common allergen triggers include seasonal pollens, pets, dust mites and certain foods such as peanuts or cow's milk. Common irritants include cigarette smoke, smog, car fumes and chemicals. Asthma can also be triggered by an emotional response. Laughing, crying or distress can cause asthma. It can also be caused by hormonal factors such as premenstrual syndrome. You may find that a doctor will call asthma either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic asthma is the most common and occurs in 90% of all cases. It is basically an asthma that is caused by an allergic reaction. Intrinsic asthma is not so common in younger people and usually develops in people over the age of 30 and is not associated with allergies.
What medications and treatments can be used?
In the treatment of asthma, inhaled medications are preferred over those that are swallowed. Most medications will act by either calming the bronchospasm (inhaler) or by reducing inflammation (steroids). Medications that are inhaled can get to work directly on the surface of the airways where asthma problems begin. Discuss your options with your doctor about what type of medication is right for you. Inhaled medications can include anticholinergics, beta-2 agonists and corticosteriods. Your doctor will advise you on the best way to take these medications and how often they should be administered and under what circumstances. For those people whose symptoms cannot be controlled by inhaled medications or those who cannot avoid allergens, an allergy shot may be considered. These shots commonly benefit children who are allergic to dust mites in the home.
What are the signs that someone is having an asthma attack?
Symptoms will vary from person to person. It is important to remember that some of these symptoms can be quite subtle and may not be immediately associated with an asthma attack. There are four major symptoms associated with asthma. The first is a shortness of breath, especially at night or after exertion. Coughing may be worse in the morning or at night or when exposed to cold air. A wheezing may also be audible when breathing in and out and a tight chest may be felt with or without the other signs. An acute asthma attack is commonly caused by a sudden exposure to allergens. An acute attack should be taken very seriously as it may be unresponsive to an inhaler. If an asthma attack is unresponsive to an inhaler, medical attention should be sought at either an emergency room or at your asthma specialist. Symptoms of an acute attack include an inability to speak and a persistent cough. To avoid the attack becoming worse, it is essential that early treatment begin immediately at home or in a doctor's office.