Being able to breathe without any form of difficulty or challenge is, perhaps, one of the most taken for granted aspects of human existence. It is something that we never pay attention to, as the body’s respiratory system carries out the entire breathing process naturally and efficiently, with little or no room for errors. At the risk of sounding too melodramatic, it is something that every individual should appreciate; however, that appreciation often happen only in retrospect, and usually at a point where the breathing process is compromised. Dr Akash Verma, an asthma specialist in Singapore, has been familiar with such scenarios after dedicating his medical career in helping patients with pulmonary conditions live a better life – despite the challenges of their circumstance.
Asthma is a common condition of that lung that causes occasional difficulty in breathing. There is no known cure for asthma but there are treatments that can manage the symptoms so that it will not have too big an impact on a person’s quality of life. This article will discuss the following topics related to asthma:
- Key facts about asthma
- Types of asthma
- Causes and triggers
- Diagnosing asthma
Key facts that you should be aware of
Asthma, also called bronchial asthma, is considered as a major noncommunicable disease (NCD) by the World Health Organization (WHO), and it impacts the health of both adults and children. According to data, it is also the most common chronic disease among children. In 2019, it affected an estimated 262 million people, 455,000 of which resulted in death. As a chronic condition, people with asthma need medical treatment for life; otherwise, it could be fatal.
To understand asthma, one needs to be aware of what happens during the process of breathing. It might be easy to oversimplify things and say that the air goes in from the nose or mouth, down to the lungs and out again but it is a little more complex than that! Our lungs are made up of a network of small air passageways that help in the process of delivering oxygen-rich air into the bloodstream. Asthma occurs when the airway linings become inflamed, causing the muscles around them to tighten. Sticky and thick secretions called mucus then enter the airways and at this point, the amount of air that can pass through gets significantly reduced. These conditions constitute an asthma attack, which is subsequently followed by fits of cough, difficulty in breathing, and tight feeling in the chest.
Types of asthma
There are two types of asthma based on the severity of symptoms. Intermittent asthma is the type that comes and goes and the person experiencing it feels normal (and able to resume normal activities) in between asthma flare ups. Persistent asthma means that a person experiences the symptoms consistently throughout the day. The severity of symptoms that they go through can range from mild, moderate, or severe. It is important to note, however, that not all people with asthma will experience the same set of symptoms. And even if you have your condition under control, the occasional flare-up of symptoms remains a possibility.
Asthma can also be pediatric or adult-onset. Pediatric or childhood asthma usually starts before a child reaches the age of five. It can also affect infants and toddlers. Adult-onset asthma is the type of asthma that begins after the age of eighteen.
Depending on the cause, asthma may be further classified as allergic or non-allergic. Allergic asthma comes from allergens like pollen, molds, dust and dust mites, and pet dander while non-allergic asthma is caused by the body’s reaction to external factors such as changes in temperature and weather, stress, exercise (called exercise-induced bronchospasm), or illness.
Causes and triggers
Despite the best efforts of medical researchers, the single cause for asthma has yet to be identified. On the other hand, years of research and data reveal that asthma is brought by several factors, namely:
- Genetic makeup: A person is more likely to acquire asthma if their or parent or sibling has asthma.
- Early exposure to bacteria: One theory states that when infants and young children grow up without being exposed to enough bacteria, their immune systems become weak and more susceptible to asthma, allergies, and other health issues.
- Personal history of viral infections: People who suffered from severe cases of viral infections during childhood are more likely to develop asthma.
There are also factors called “asthma triggers”, which as the name suggests, are certain things and conditions that initiate an asthma attack. Some of the most common triggers are allergens, changes in weather conditions or temperature, intense emotions, pests, irritants that are present in an environment, and certain ingredients in medications. These triggers may vary, and some people may be more affected by certain triggers than others.
The asthma symptoms caused by these triggers may be alleviated with the use of an inhaler but if the condition does not improve or it gets worse, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible to prevent an asthma emergency. These are the symptoms that indicate an asthma emergency:
- General disorientation or confusion
- Nausea and dizziness
- Cold, clammy skin and pale lips or fingernails
- Difficulty in talking and/or breathing, causing a person to gasp for air
If you notice any of these symptoms, call the emergency hotline or proceed to the nearest medical facility for immediate treatment.
Diagnosis and treatment
In order to determine if you have asthma, the doctor will review your personal medical history and assess your symptoms. You will be asked to provide information about past allergies and other lung diseases, if you have (or have had) any. The doctor may order a test called spirometry, which measures the level of airflow through the lungs. A chest x-ray, skin test, or blood test may be part of the assessment as well.
Once the doctor confirms that you have asthma, certain medications will be prescribed to manage the symptoms. These may include bronchodilators (which relax the muscles around the airways) and anti-inflammatory medicines (to minimize the swelling and production of mucus in the airways). Your doctor will provide instructions on how to breathe in the medicines using a nebulizer or an asthma inhaler. Oral medications may also be required depending on the type and severity of your asthma.
Living with asthma requires commitment and discipline. The goal is to minimize asthma attacks and flare-ups so make sure that you follow your doctor’s instructions and schedule routine checkups to monitor the symptoms.
IP Lung Clinic
Interventional Pulmonology & lung Clinic
Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, 3 Mount Elizabeth, #12-03, Singapore 228510
+65 9023 0158