Health Matters – Asthma

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder that blocks air flow in and out of the lungs. In asthmatics, the airways may overreact and spasm when exposed to certain triggers. Triggers can include tobacco smoke, air pollution, dust mites, pet dander, exercise, cold air, and pollen.

As well, airways may become irritated and fill up with mucus, making it more difficult for the air to pass through.

The most common symptoms of asthma include wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Less common signs of asthma include rapid breathing, difficulty concentrating, and a chronic cough that does not respond to cough suppressants or antibiotics.

Asthma medications can be classified into two categories: relievers and controllers. Reliever medications relax the muscles around the airways, causing the airway to open and allow improved airflow. Reliever medications are used on an as-needed basis. If you are using a reliever medication more than two or three times a week, you are not receiving adequate control of your symptoms and may need additional medication. Examples of reliever medications include Ventolin, Maxair, Alupent, and Atrovent.

Controller medications are anti-inflammatory and include corticosteroids and inhaled non-steroidal agents. Inhaled corticosteroids are very effective and may be used daily with minimal side effects. Non-steroidal inhaled medications are useful in treating patients whose asthma is not controlled by inhaled corticosteroids alone. Newer medications are now available in pill form and some examples include Singulair and Accolate.

Most asthma attacks are mild, but they can be severe and life threatening. Signs of a serious asthma attack include struggling to breath, sucking in of skin above breastbone and between ribs, nostrils flaring out, pale grey or blue lips or nail beds, sweating, and loss of consciousness. If You’re experiencing these symptoms or witnessing someone who is, call 911 and continue to take your rescue medication (usually a blue puffer).

There are some things that put a person at increased risk for developing asthma. There is some controversy surrounding the claim that there is a genetic link in the occurrence of asthma; however, most experts agree that environmental pollutants, family history, and allergies may put a person at higher risk for developing asthma.

As well, people who work in certain occupations may be at increased risk. For example, spray painters (as a result of exposure to isocyanates) and grain handlers, due to exposure to grain dust. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety provides further information on occupational asthma.

If you or someone close to you is diagnosed with asthma it is important to follow your doctor’s advice and take your asthma medication as prescribed.

Further information on asthma can be found through The Canadian Lung Association’s website.

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