The ABC of Asthma

Asthma is one of the most common respiratory complaints, and among the most prevalent chronic diseases in South Africa, affecting 80% of children and 50% of adults. Even though South Africa has the world’s fourth highest asthma death rate, not many people know what asthma is or how to treat it.

What is asthma:

Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Age of onset

Asthma can present at any age, although about half of all people with asthma have their first symptoms by the age of 10 and many children with asthma have their first asthma attack before they even start school. 

Types:

There are many different types of asthma each triggered by various elements. Sometimes the terms and categories overlap, making your asthma more difficult to treat. These categories include:

  • Allergic asthma
  • Non-allergic asthma
  • Allergic bronchopulmonary mycosis
  • Aspirin-induced asthma
  • Adult-onset asthma
  • Childhood asthma
  • Asthma with fixed airflow obstruction
  • Exercise-induced asthma
  • Cough-variant asthma
  • Work-related asthma
  • Night time (nocturnal) asthma
  • Asthma with obesity

Symptoms:

While symptoms may vary from person to person, there are common asthma signs you should know:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A persistent cough
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Intolerance of cigarette smoke
  • Changing seasons

Less common symptoms of asthma:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Rapid breathing
  • Constant fatigue

Frequency of attacks:

The frequency of attacks varies from person to person and may occur daily, weekly or even monthly. Your attacks can also be triggered by certain environmental factors, including:

  • Airborne substances, such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander or particles of cockroach waste
  • Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
  • Exercise
  • Cold air
  • Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
  • Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin and ibuprofen
  • Strong emotions and stress
  • Preservatives added to some types of food and beverages, including dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat

Treatment:

Even though asthma cannot be cured, it can be effectively managed. Each case of asthma is different and needs a unique asthma treatment plan. There are currently two types of medication your doctor may suggest when treating your asthma:

  • Quick-relief medications: These medicines act rapidly to relax tight muscles around your airways, allowing them to open up. They come in the form of an inhaler, nebulizer, EpiPen or pill.
  • Long-term control medicines: Long-term control medicine helps control asthma symptoms. You may need to take them every day for best results. These medicines include:
    • Inhaled corticosteroids
    • Inhaled long-acting beta agonists
    • Shots or infusions given every few weeks (Biologics)
    • Leukotriene modifiers
    • Cromolyn sodium
    • Theophylline

Asthma action plan:

Having asthma doesn’t mean you have to be less active. Treatment can prevent asthma attacks and control symptoms even while you’re exercising. Regular physical activities can even strengthen your heart and lungs, which helps relieve asthma symptoms. 

Work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan that outlines in writing when to take certain medications or when to increase or decrease the dose of your medications based on your symptoms. Also include a list of your triggers and the steps you need to take to avoid them.

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