Spotlight On: Asthma

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Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the lungs of people of all ages. Asthma causes repeated episodes of coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing and airflow obstruction. Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma, but it can be managed to help people with the condition lead a normal and healthy life. Interestingly, asthma can change over time, and while it may affect some people mildly, others may have more severe symptoms that can even be life-threatening.

Asthma is categorized into two main subtypes.

  • Allergic asthma is mainly caused by allergens, such as dust mites, mold and pollen.
  • Nonallergic asthma is caused by triggers that are not typically allergic in nature. Household chemicals, secondhand or cigarette smoke, air pollution, breathing cold air and even infections such as cold and flu can lead to nonallergic asthma.

Occupational asthma is another type, caused by breathing industrial or noxious chemicals at work, and exercise-induced asthma is triggered during extreme physical exercise.

Scientists aren’t sure why some things trigger asthma in some people. However, studies suggest that certain factors can increase your risk of developing asthma, including:

  • Genetics and family history: You’re more likely to have asthma if one of your parents, especially your mother, already has it.
  • Race or ethnicity: Black and Puerto Rican people are at higher risk of developing asthma.
  • Other medical conditions: Obesity, diabetes and other respiratory infections, including COVID-19, can increase your risk.
  • Your sex: Asthma affects more boys than girls, but this trend reverses in adults, with more women having asthma than men do.

Treatments for asthma are aimed at managing symptoms and preventing further attacks. These include:

  • avoiding triggering substances, such as cigarette smoke and tobacco exposure;
  • getting allergy shots, which are typically given weekly for few months;
  • taking quick-relief (rescue) medications for short-term relief during an asthma attack. These are usually found in portable, handheld inhalers or nebulizers; and
  • using long-term asthma medications daily to manage inflammation of the airways.

Most commercial asthma medications require a systemic approach to avoid asthma flare-ups, starting with avoiding triggers and working up to the more powerful treatments. If you have asthma, work with your doctor to come up with a flexible treatment plan to control your symptoms—one breath at a time.

Niyati Borkar is a PhD student in pharmaceutical sciences at North Dakota State University. Her research focuses on understanding the role of sex steroids in the sex-skewed occurrence of asthma. Borkar is a Graduate Student Ambassador for the American Physiological Society and is an avid scientific communicator. 

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