The word asthma is really a blanket term covering a complex condition characterised by bouts of breathlessness as a result of intermittent narrowing of the airways (bronchial tube) within the lungs. The inner layer of these tubes known as the mucous membrane is chronically (long term, long lasting) irritated and inflamed.
The inflammation which occurs results in the airways being more sensitive to a variety of stimuli that can include allergens, cold air, exercise and viral infections all of which can lead to bronchospasm. Bronchospasm is a sudden tightening of the muscles in the walls of the bronchioles (they help air distribution in the lungs).
Typical symptoms associated with asthma include wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath. This can occur continuously or periodically.
Asthma runs in the family and if one or more parents has asthma then there is a good possibility that the child will develop it. If the mother smoked during pregnancy or breastfeeding the risk of a child developing it also increases. It is thought that about 1 in 12 adults has some form of asthma and 1 in 11 children.
Most childhood asthma is caused by an allergy. Grass pollen is the most frequent allergic trigger however animals especially cats and horses can cause asthma attacks. Newer research suggests that it may be something in cat saliva which causes an allergic response.
When the body is exposed to the allergen it results in the body releasing an allergy antibody called IgE which starts a chain reaction resulting in inflammation of the airways and as a consequence asthma symptoms worse. If an susceptible individual is exposed to allergens repeatedly it can lead to more longer lasting symptoms. Often pet owners do not believe that stroking is causing them problems and fail to recognise that the long term exposure is causing their symptoms.
Skin-prick tests may be able to discover the allergen. Practical steps can then be taken to avoid it, be it house dust mites, cats, dogs or other pets. Even mould spores and pollen grains can trigger seasonal asthma attacks which sees an increase in the months from May to August when grass pollen is being produced in quantity.
Diagnosis of asthma can be difficult and can be done on the basis of family history alone. The difficulty is that not all wheezing is due to asthma and it is difficult to diagnose accurately in under fives. To assist in diagnosis, a peak flow meter can be used. It is a small robust tube which gives a good idea of the narrowness of the airways by measuring the maximum rate at which someone can blow air out of their lungs.
As in other allergen triggers ailments, removing the allergen trigger can improve the asthma. However, as house mites could be an allergen the control measures which would include buying new occlusive bedding, changing curtains to blinds, removing carpets and loose fittings and deep freezing cuddly toys for about 12 hours per day can be costly and time consuming. There is still uncertainty as to whether it helps.
A more effective method of managing asthma is through the use of inhalers as both relievers and preventers.
A reliever drug such as Salbutamol relaxes the muscles in the airway walls which means air can get in and out more easily. This means that breathing is easier. It is known as a bronchodilator and the inhaler used is often blue.
A preventer such as beclomethasone or fluticasone acts by reducing the inflammation in the airways making them less irritable. Unlike a reliever they must be taken on a regular basis. The frequency is normally twice a day. By taking it regularly the symptoms of asthma are controlled and the impact minimised. The protective effect is built over time so it is important to keep taking it as directed by a doctor or asthma nurse. Preventer inhalers are often brown.
Managing asthma is dependent on good use of inhalers as such it is important to never stop taking the preventer even when your symptoms are stable. If you wait until your symptoms get worse it will mean that they could be harder to treat and require emergency aid.
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