Breathing image courtesy of Flickr/shawnzlea

As the summer weather settles in, many people take to the outdoors to exercise and be more active. For some, this increase in physical activity means more than just sweating, losing weight, and having fun. It means more coughing, more choking, and more wheezing as well. You see, exercise is a trigger for the symptoms of asthma, a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. The most common symptoms of asthma include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Many people with asthma experience a worsening of their symptoms when they exercise, but to understand why, we should look closer at what asthma is and what it does.

What is asthma?

As mentioned above, asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. More specifically, asthma affects the air passageways of the lungs. If you have asthma, your air passageways become enlarged and inflamed, squeezing and sometimes blocking the flow of air through your lungs. This makes it difficult for you to breathe, especially when trying to catch your breath after exercising!

Asthma is often represented in movies as simply an aid to a stereotype, or as an inconvenience to a character. Unfortunately, asthma is much more serious than many of us are led to believe. In 2013, asthma was responsible for about half a million deaths, and over 240 million people had been diagnosed. An alarming increase in the rate of asthma since the 1960s has many scientists concerned. Many governments and organizations, including the World Health Organization, now consider asthma to be one of the major public health concerns.

Asthma affects many more children than it does adults. It affects twice as many boys than it does girls. The rate of asthma is higher in the U.S. than in most other countries in the world. Asthma has been shown to be most prevalent in Caucasians, Fillipinos, African Americans, and Irish Americans. It is least prevalent in Koreans, as well as Mexicans.

What causes asthma?

Doctors do not completely agree on what causes asthma, nor do they completely understand how it develops. Generally, asthma is believed to be caused by a mixture of environmental and genetic factors. Environmental factors that may possibly lead to developing asthma in children include allergens, pollutants, and parents that smoke during or after pregnancy. Living in areas of high ozone levels and poor air quality are also believed to be factors for developing asthma. Genetic factors include a family history of asthma and genes that are specifically susceptible to the development of asthma.

Interestingly, some researchers believe that the increase in overall hygiene in the last few decades, along with the use of antibacterial products in the home, have led to increased rates of asthma because children are not encountering general bacteria and viruses that would normally allow their immune systems to develop properly early on in life. This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis.

How to treat asthma.

Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be managed quite well. Most people with asthma find that by avoiding allergens, avoiding triggers, and taking medication, they can keep their symptoms relatively under control. Medication used to treat asthma usually dilates the air passageways in the lungs, allowing more room for air to flow. If you have asthma, these medications help you breathe more easily. Fast-acting or short-acting medications, sometimes known as “rescue medications” are used to control sudden or severe bouts of symptoms, which are commonly called “asthma attacks.” Longer-acting bronchodilators are used daily to prevent asthma attacks from occurring in the first place. Keep in mind that you should never use long-acting bronchodilators to treat an asthma attack. Likewise, you should never use a short-acting medication routinely.

Interesting facts about asthma:

- Asthma is estimated to cost the health care system between 50 and 60 billion dollars a year.

- Many celebrities and star athletes suffer from asthma, including David Beckham, Elizabeth Taylor, Beethoven, Dennis Rodman, Paula Radcliffe, Liza Minelli, Kenny G, Bono, Sharon Stone, John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope, Bill Clinton, and Christopher Reeve.

- Asthma was thought to be tied to emotional stress in ancient Egypt, and for many people today emotional stress is a trigger for their symptoms.

- As mentioned above, asthma affects twice as many boys as it does girls, but this is reversed when it comes to adults: twice as many women have asthma as compared to men.

- 10 Americans die every day due to asthma.

- Almost three quarters of all people with asthma also suffer from allergies.

- Contrary to popular belief, children do not 'outgrow' asthma, it simply changes along with their immune system.


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