Who Gets Asthma?
Asthma is very common, affecting more than 26 million people in the United States, including nearly 7 million children. No one knows for sure why some people have asthma and others don’t. However, heredity can play a role. People who have family members with allergies or asthma are more likely to have asthma themselves.
Asthma can occur at any age but is more common in children than adults. In young children, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to develop asthma, but this sex difference tends to disappear in older age groups. Obesity is a newly identified risk factor for asthma.
What causes asthma?
People generally think of asthma in terms of episodes or attacks. Actually, the asthmatic condition is always present, but symptoms may be dormant until they’re triggered by an allergen, respiratory infection, or cold weather. Other triggers may include aspirin, environmental irritants, physical exertion, and less commonly, food additives and preservatives.
Allergens are substances that cause no problem for a majority of people but trigger an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. Allergens are a major source of breathing problems in both children and adults. Common allergens include plant pollen (tree, grass, and weed), dander from pets and other animals, house dust mites, cockroaches, molds, and certain foods. When an allergic individual encounters one of these allergens, a complicated series of events causes the body to release chemicals called mediators. These mediators often trigger asthma episodes.
Environmental irritants , such as cold air, smoke, industrial chemicals, perfume, and paint and gasoline fumes, can provoke asthma. They probably trigger asthma symptoms by stimulating irritant receptors in the respiratory tract. In turn, these receptors cause the muscles surrounding the airway to constrict, resulting in an asthma attack.
Viral respiratory infections are the leading cause of acute asthma attacks. Surprisingly, bacterial infections, with the exception of sinusitis, do not cause asthma attacks. Some people who experience heartburn can have asthma symptoms when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus.
Aspirin and aspirin-containing products can trigger asthma attacks in susceptible individuals.
Beta-blockers , which often are prescribed for high blood pressure, glaucoma, migraine headaches, and angina, are another type of medication that can cause problems. Beta-blockers can cause airway constriction, so it is important for people with asthma to consult a physician about the use of these medications.
Food additives can trigger asthma; however, this is rare. The most common food triggers are sulfites, preservatives used in products such as frozen potatoes and some beers and wines.
What is the difference between allergic disease and asthma?
Asthma is inflammation and obstruction of airflow in the bronchial tubes. Allergies are just one of the factors that can trigger asthma attacks. Not all people with asthma are allergic, and there are many people who have allergies but do not have asthma.
Living with Allergic Asthma?
The best defense against allergic asthma is to avoid the allergens that cause your symptoms. Here are some steps you can take to limit exposure to your allergic triggers.
• Put dust-proof covers on pillows, mattresses, and box springs.
• Avoid bedding stuffed with foam rubber or kapok.
• Remove or limit carpeting in the home. If possible, replace it with hardwood, vinyl, or linoleum floors.
• Vacuum the carpets you do have once or twice a week with a cyclonic vacuum or a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter.
• Wash bedding and stuffed animals in hot water (130°F) weekly.
• Use air conditioning to keep humidity low to slow down dust mite growth during warm weather.
• Change air conditioning and furnace filters every three months, and use filters with a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating of 8 to 12.
• Cover windows with washable curtains or window shades.
• Keep windows closed during pollen season.
• Stay inside during midday and afternoon hours when pollen counts are highest.
• Take a shower, wash your hair, and change clothing after working or playing outdoors.
• Keep the pet outdoors or restrict it to a few rooms in the house. At the very least, keep the pet out of the bedroom.
• Wash your hands after touching the pet.
• Bathe your pet once a week to reduce dander.
• Vacuum carpets once or twice a week with a cyclonic vacuum or a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
• Clean bathrooms, kitchens, and basements regularly, and keep them well ventilated.
• Do not use humidifiers.
• Use dehumidifiers in damp areas, with the humidity level set for less than 50 percent but above 25 percent. Drain and clean the unit regularly.
• Clean visible mold on walls, floors, and ceilings using a 5 percent bleach solution and detergent.
• Fix leaky faucets and pipes.
• Limit your number of indoor plants, which may harbor molds in the potting soil. Also avoid dried flowers, as they may contain mold.
• Keep your kitchen clean, and wash dishes promptly.
• Make sure all food is stored in sealed containers.
• Empty garbage and recycling bins frequently.
• Seal cracks in your home to prevent infestation.
Source: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, AllergyAndAsthmaRelief.org
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, March/April 2014.