Asthma Awareness Month
May is Asthma Awareness Month, and it’s our chance to help get the word out about this chronic disease that affects nearly 25 million people in the United States. In recent decades, the prevalence of asthma has been increasing, resulting in millions of urgent medical visits and missed days of work and school each year.
Asthma is a chronic, and sometimes fatal, disease in which the airways become inflamed from a variety of triggers in the air, like indoor allergens from dust mites, mold, and cockroaches, and outdoor air pollution. Once the airways become swollen and inflamed, they become narrower, causing symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing.
Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood. In the United States, more than 25 million people are known to have asthma. About 7 million of these people are children.
Asthma symptoms that start in childhood can disappear later in life. Sometimes, however, a child’s asthma goes away temporarily, only to return a few years later. But other children with asthma — particularly those with severe asthma — never outgrow it.
In young children, it can be hard to tell whether signs and symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath are caused by asthma or something else. Sometimes, what seems to be asthma turns out to be another condition, such as bronchitis, recurrent pneumonia or bronchiolitis. These and a number of other asthma-like conditions typically improve as children get older.
Children with more-severe asthma are less likely to outgrow it. Persistent wheezing and a history of allergies, especially to furry animals, also increase the odds that your child won’t outgrow asthma.
To understand asthma, it helps to know how the airways work. The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. People who have asthma have inflamed airways. The inflammation makes the airways swollen and very sensitive. The airways tend to react strongly to certain inhaled substances.
When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This narrows the airways, causing less air to flow into the lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways might make more mucus than usual. Mucus is a sticky, thick liquid that can further narrow the airways.
This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms. Symptoms can happen each time the airways are inflamed.
Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with asthma medicine. Other times, symptoms continue to get worse.
When symptoms get more intense and/or more symptoms occur, you’re having an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flare-ups or exacerbations. Treating symptoms when you first notice them is important. This will help prevent the symptoms from worsening and causing a severe asthma attack. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can be fatal.
It’s important to diagnose and treat childhood asthma early on. Work with your child’s doctor to manage your child’s asthma. A written asthma action plan can help you track symptoms, adjust medications and help your child avoid asthma triggers. As your child gets older, involve him or her in the development of the action plan.
Asthma has no cure. Even when you feel fine, you still have the disease and it can flare up at any time.
However, with today’s knowledge and treatments, most people who have asthma are able to manage the disease. They have few, if any, symptoms. They can live normal, active lives and sleep through the night without interruption from asthma.
If you have asthma, you can take an active role in managing the disease. For successful, thorough, and ongoing treatment, build strong partnerships with your doctor, pharmacist, and other health care providers.
Sources: NIH and Mayo Clinic.