Since 1970, the occurrence of asthma has increased significantly, especially in developed countries. In fact, it is estimated that 235-300 million people globally are diagnosed with this condition every year, the majority of whom are youngsters.
A curious fact is that mild asthma attacks are twice as common in boys as girls, however severe asthma occurs at equal rates in both genders. Contrastingly, adult women tend to suffer more from this condition.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease, characterised by reversible airflow obstruction as
a result of swelling and increased contractibility of the smooth muscles surrounding the small airways.
Typical symptoms include recurrent episodes of wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Sputum may also be produced. Such symptoms are usually worse at night or early in the morning, in response to strenuous physical activity, or exposure to cold weather.
The cause of asthma is not yet known, however, a combination of genetic and environmental factors are thought to be major contributors in the manifestation of this common disease.
Smoking is also associated with a greater risk of asthma-like symptoms, hence it is recommended that it is limited both during and after delivery.
Psychological stress may also be a causative factor, for stress alters the immune system and thus increases the airway inflammatory response to allergens and irritants.
Prevention and treatment
It is vitally important to be aware that future asthma attacks can be easily prevented by avoiding exposure to potential allergens and irritants, which may include air pollution, tobacco smoke, animal dander, dust mites, pollen, sulfite-containing foods, as well as strong chemicals such as perfumes, spray paint, latex and aldehydes. Should trigger-avoidance be insufficient, the use of prescribed medication is recommended.
The treatment of asthma varies in different individuals, depending on the age group, severity of the illness, as well as the frequency of symptoms.
Acute asthma attacks are frequently treated with medications such as bronchodilators or corticosteroids. These drugs can be administered orally in the form of dissolved tablets, or else via a metered-dose inhaler, coupled with an asthma spacer.
The prognosis for asthma is generally good, especially in children. It is a known fact that half of the asthma cases diagnosed throughout childhood will no longer carry the diagnosis after a decade.
One thing to be aware of is that there are a number of conditions that may occur more frequently in people suffering from asthma as opposed to members of the general population that do not suffer from this respiratory disease. These conditions may include gastro-esophageal reflux, rhino-sinusitis and obstructive sleep apnea.
Georgiana Mifsud Bonnici is a medical doctor.