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Understanding Asthma

ASTHMA is a worldwide affliction. It is estimated that 1 in 10 suffers from it. Young and old alike, townsfolk and countryfolk, manual workers and office workers, are among the sufferers.

Yet, The illness is little understood, especially by non sufferers. Even asthmatics often do not understand what is happening to them, and this can create anxiety that only aggravates the condition.

In a typical attack, the sufferer feels a tightness in the chest. Wheezing and coughing, he struggles to breathe. The experience is frightening! An attack may be severe or quite mild. Symptoms may vary, as may the frequency of attacks. Some persons always have the symptoms, although they differ in severity.

What causes these unpleasant sensations? As you probably know, air is channeled into our lungs through the bronchial tubes. In many asthmatic patients, allergic reactions cause oversensitivity in these tubes. The muscles in the bronchial wall may contract, the membrane lining the tubes may swell, and the glands in the bronchial wall may produce excess mucus. The result? The tubes get narrower. No wonder the patient has difficulty breathing!

What Causes Asthma?

What triggers an attack? Perhaps an infection, an emotional upset, or a severe allergic reaction to something. However, once the disease has been triggered in a person, there may be several antigens, or specific substances, that will produce an oversensitivity in the bronchial tubes. And once the bronchial tubes are sensitized to these, other factors, such as temperature changes, varying humidity, emotional upsets, or exercise, may also cause attacks.

Doctors may be able to identify some of the antigens that bring on an asthma attack, but it is not often possible to find all of them. And even when they are found, it is not always possible to avoid them. Thorough investigation to find the causes of asthma and the best way to manage it may take time. It may involve much patience on the part of the sufferer and the doctor. But such time spent will likely result in greater ability to control the symptoms.

How to Prevent Attacks

Many things irritate the lungs and can provoke an attack in an asthma sufferer. Try to avoid contact with the following.

Tobacco Smoke: Do not smoke, and avoid smoke-filled rooms. Doctors quickly lose sympathy for asthmatics who insist on smoking. And friends of someone who suffers from the illness should not smoke in the person’s presence. Although the person may not suffer an attack immediately, hours later the individual may be in dire straits because of the effects of the smoke.

Dust: Try to avoid dusty, enclosed areas as well as activities that stir up dust. If your job brings you into contact with a lot of dust, give serious consideration to changing it. Some asthmatics find that their symptoms occur only at night or in the bedroom. Could this be due to house dust or those tiny house-dust mites? In many cases it is; hence, the asthmatic’s bedroom should be as free of dust as possible. Following are some housekeeping suggestions especially designed for asthmatics.

Clean the bedroom daily.

Each week, thoroughly clean and vacuum mattress, bed base, blankets, and floor. Hardwood floors are better than rugs or carpets, and venetian blinds than drapes.

Dust furniture, tops of doors, window frames, and windowsills with a damp or oily cloth.

The room should be aired thoroughly and the doors and windows closed after the airing, at least three to four hours before the person retires.

Mattress, blankets, and pillows should not be of allergy-causing materials, and they should regularly be aired in the sun if at all possible.

One more thing. Do not allow pets into the bedroom. And if there is any evidence that you are allergic to your pet, find another home for it-or, at least, always keep it out of the house.

Temperature and Humidity: Sudden temperature changes and extremes of heat and cold may provoke an attack. The ideal is air that is slightly warm and moist. Hence, if you suffer from asthma, go out as little as possible in foggy or crisp, cold weather. Avoid hot, dry central heating. If temperature changes cause attacks during the night, try having a thermostatically controlled heater in your room during the winter months. If humidity brings on your symptoms, try using a humidity controller.

Emotional Stress and Fatigue: Either of these may cause an attack. True, we cannot always control emotional stress. Also, wise sufferers of asthma try to be aware of their physical limitations, avoiding fatigue, which can also trigger an attack.

Food: Food allergies may be causes of an attacks, especially in children or in adults whose asthma started in childhood. Even common foods, such as milk, eggs, and cereals, may be suspect. But it may take a lot of detective work to determine the culprit, especially if it is a widely used substance, such as sugar. And, of course, it could be that more than one food is involved. Adult patients would be well-advised to consider alcoholic drinks, especially beer and wine, to be possible aggravating factors.

Exercise: Sometimes an attack is triggered by overexertion, usually striking after the exercise is completed. If this is your experience, avoid exercises, such as squash, that involve sudden bursts of energy and try a more gradual form of exercise, such as swimming and bicycling. Perhaps it may help to use a bronchodilator (a medicine that relieves congestion in the bronchial tubes) prior to any strenuous activity. A physiotherapist may be able to help you with a program that will increase your tolerance of exercise. This will enable you to take part in more activities without becoming short of breath.

Infection: Often, minor respiratory infections, such as a cold or influenza, will provoke an attacks or make the symptoms worse. The usual medication for relief of asthma is not always effective when an infection is present.

Living With Pollens: While the winter months cause many problems to those with respiratory disease, many suffer from what is called seasonal asthma. Microscopically small particles of pollen floating in the summer air can cause untold misery and discomfort to asthma sufferers. It is impossible to eradicate the sources of this pollen, but some commonsense measures may help. For instance, try to avoid freshly mowed lawns, as well as wilderness or country areas during pollen seasons, and use effective air-conditioning if possible.

Living With Molds: Thousands of molds, or fungi, inhabit our environment. Molds and fungal spores (reproductive bodies) grow on vegetable or animal matter. They are also abundant on wheat, oats, corn, grasses, and leaves. While only a small number have been shown to cause problems for sufferers, a study suggested that spores may be a major allergy factor. Hence, while it is impossible to eradicate airborne spores, the following measures may help:

  • Avoid damp, musty basements and buildings.
  • Do not rake or burn leaves or dry grass.
  • Disinfect or destroy any moldy articles.
  • Do not keep plants indoors or establish a compost pile in the garden.
  • Decontaminate household areas infected with mold.

Is Your Child Asthmatic?

If so, he will need your support. You, as well as his teachers, will need to understand his problem and help him to cope with it. The child must not be pushed to do more than he can manage, but neither should he be allowed to hide behind his asthma and avoid doing things that would be good for him.

His physical activities should preferably be noncompetitive, although many children with asthma can play most games when they are free of symptoms. However, the child with chronic asthma may be able to enjoy only limited activity, and adults should be careful not to push him to try too hard. The intelligent use of medication may help him to enjoy regular activities such as physical education, and the instructor should know when and how to use a bronchodilator aerosol.

A few children are so severely affected by asthma that they persistently have difficulty in breathing and are frequently wheezy. Such children are often anxious and tense, and their parents and teachers worry a lot about them. The children frequently miss school and may be unable to join in games.

A parent may be overprotective of such a child. If the child comes from a home where there is constant tension and argument, he may lack the support, love, understanding, and encouragement he so desperately needs. Parents who adopt a healthy, optimistic approach to asthma help reduce anxiety in the child, minimizing the severity of the disorder.

If Someone Has an Attack…

Move him to a quiet place and reassure him. He may stand or sit leaning forward, often the most comfortable position during an attack, and he should use his bronchodilator immediately. If the bronchodilator is an inhalant, it may work faster and therefore be more effective than a medicine taken orally. If the attack is severe-especially if the sufferer cannot speak properly-he should be taken to a doctor as soon as possible. By the way, the patient loses a lot of moisture during an attack because of the gasping and panting. Therefore, give him plenty to drink.

Treatment of the Asthmatic

Physiotherapy is an important aid in helping the asthmatic, especially in showing him how to breathe properly (using the diaphragm) and how to ease shortness of breath. The therapist can also teach him relaxation, good posture, and exercises that help to keep asthma under control. Treatments vary. A doctor is usually the most qualified to suggest what is best in each individual case.

Treatments include the use of drugs, such as sodium cromolyn and steroids, as well as several types of bronchodilators. Of course, with the use of drugs, there may be possible side effects. A doctor may be able to recommend other treatments.

Asthma is complex. Relatives and friends must understand this if they are going to be of any help. Avoid saying things like, ‘Just get your mind off it’ or, ‘You look quite well to me.’ We can be better prepared for asthma attacks, better equipped to avoid things that trigger them, and have their stress, anxiety, and discomfort greatly lessened.

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