Understanding asthma- simplified!

It’s World Asthma Day. Let’s talk about it, shall we?

Understanding asthma- simplified!

Asthma is common. You may have it, or you probably know one or two people who are living with the condition; you may have even witnessed at least one asthmatic attack in the past. Whichever case, asthma is all around us.

The WHO estimates that about 262 million of the world’s population have asthma, of which about 13 million live in Nigeria.

The average Nigerian has an idea about asthma. It is generally known to be a disease that causes a person to suddenly have difficulty breathing. But what exactly is asthma? Keep reading.

Understanding asthma

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition where the airway is hypersensitive to common environmental particles like dust, pollen, moulds, animal dander and practically any other aerosol.

The airway, just like any other part of the body, has immune cells that guard it to prevent any harm or infection from setting in. Soon after birth, the immune system starts to get exposed to the environment and begins to adapt and mature. With good adaptation, the immune cells in the airway become skilled at differentiating what is dangerous from what is not.

In people with asthma, the immune cells are not fully adapted to common environmental substances. So they get triggered by even the smallest amount of susceptible particles and immediately go into fight mode.

In fight mode, the immune cells begin to release molecules that cause the airway to swell (inflammation) and narrow – all in an attempt to block to perceived dangerous substances from reaching the lungs. It is this inflammation and constriction that causes the sudden onset breathlessness that is classical of asthmatic attacks.

Normal airway vs Narrowed asthmatic airway

It doesn’t just stop there. Asthma is a chronic (long-standing) condition, therefore, the airway is constantly in a state of remodelling where it becomes perpetually narrowed, with excessive mucous secretion. These chronic changes make asthmatics even more prone to having worsening attacks.

It is important to note that cold, exercise, drugs like aspirin, and even emotional stress could also be triggers for asthmatic attacks.

What causes asthma?

The pathophysiology of asthma is complex and multifactorial. There is no single cause of asthma, many factors work together to result in it.

Some of these factors include:

  • Family/Genetics: This is one of the strongest contributors to asthma. Having a family member (especially 1st degree) with asthma increases the risk.
  • Chronic exposure to environmental pollutants and irritants like tobacco or industrial chemicals.
  • Hygiene hypothesis: This theory  proposes that asthma develops when a child is too shielded from germs and is not exposed to common environmental particles early on in life. It is believed that this shielding prevents the immune cells in the airway from developing well and adapting fully to the environment, causing them to respond abnormally to common environmental particles.
  • Having atopy: Atopy is the to react excessively to allergens through the overproduction of immunoglobulin E in the body. A common manifestation of atopy is atopic dermatitis or eczema.

How is asthma treated?

There is currently no permanent cure for asthma. However, treatment is available. With proper treatment, people with asthma can enjoy their lives to the fullest.

The principle of asthma treatment generally involves the following:

  1. Trigger control: It is important for people living with asthma to identify their triggers and deliberately avoid them as much as possible.
  1. Bronchodilators: Many inhalers contain chemicals called bronchodilators which dilates (opens up or widens) the airway to counteract the narrowing seen in asthma.
  1. Steroids: This class of drugs work to reduce the airway inflammation.

Depending of the severity of asthma, the treatment regimen differs from person to person.

A word from Healthfacts

Asthma is not a death sentence. With proper treatment, it is possible to enjoy a long, healthy life. We hope you have learnt a thing or two about asthma?

Kindly share this post with your family and friends.

Quiz: How many of these hypertension questions can you answer correctly?