Asthma: A treatable disease
Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease affecting the breathing tubes of the lungs. Common symptoms of asthma include persistent coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing, particularly at night or with exercise. In the United States, asthma affects 20 million people and results in direct healthcare costs of $11.5 billion annually. Asthma is inflammation (swelling) of the airways, increased sensitivity of the airways to a variety of things that make asthma worse and intermittent airflow blockage.
Research shows that inflammation of the lining of the airways is the most common feature of asthma. When stimulated, certain cells lining the airways release chemical substances (mediators) that lead to inflammation. This causes the airway lining to swell and narrow. Inflammation may last for weeks following an asthma episode. Most people with asthma have some degree of inflammation all the time.
Allergy-induced asthma is the most common type of asthma in the United States; 80 percent of children and 60 percent of adults with asthma have allergies. In fact, a family history of allergies is the strongest risk factor for having allergic asthma. For people with allergic asthma, breathing in substances such as pollen, mold, dust mites and animal dander triggers the inflammation and swelling of the airways, leading to symptoms of asthma. If you have allergic asthma, reducing exposure to an allergic substance can reduce your asthma and, in some cases, completely control it.
Though allergic asthma is the most common form, there are other forms and triggers of asthma, including exercise, viral infections, smoke, cold air, pollution and gastroesophageal reflux.
The cornerstone of asthma treatment is daily, long-term controller medications aimed at reducing inflammation. The most common and effective treatment is an inhaled corticosteroid breathed into the lungs to reduce inflammation of the bronchial tubes in asthma. A leukotriene modifier is a pill form of treatment also used to help block inflammation. For more severe asthma, combination medications are often needed.
Current asthma guidelines recommend specialized breathing tests to assess severity and monitor treatment, environmental control measures to avoid factors that contribute to asthma severity, comprehensive long-term medications to suppress inflammation and manage breakthrough symptoms and patient education that fosters a partnership among patients, their families and their asthma specialists.