Asthma is a common chronic lung disease that affects millions of people across the globe. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 26 million people in the United States have asthma, and asthma prevalence has been steadily increasing in all ages, ethnicities, and genders since the early 1980s. It’s unknown what exactly causes it, but scientists believe that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of the disease. Asthma rates continue to climb, and while no one can pinpoint the exact cause for the rising rates of asthma, several theories have come to light.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a disease that causes inflammation of the bronchial airways. These passageways become swollen and narrow. The inflamed airways restrict the amount of air passing through. A large amount of mucus buildup can further restrict breathing.
Certain triggers may worsen asthma and cause a greater amount of inflammation and tightening of the muscles surrounding the airways. As breathing becomes more difficult and the lungs work harder to get enough air, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath can occur.
Asthma does tend to run in families, so if you have family members who suffer from it, there is a higher chance you do too. It is called allergic asthma if environmental triggers or allergies lead to an asthmatic episode. Other types of asthma include:
- Childhood asthma, which develops early in young children, typically before the fifth birthday.
- Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), or exercise-induced asthma (EIA), which occurs in individuals who only experience asthma during exercise or sports.
- Occupational asthma, which manifests when people have jobs that expose them to dust, gas, smoke, and other fumes.
Asthma attacks or flare-ups are asthmatic episodes that occur after being exposed to allergens or other triggers. Wheezing and difficulty breathing are the most common signs you have asthma. Other symptoms include:
- A chronic cough
- Tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing or wheezing that disrupts sleep
These asthma symptoms can develop in people of all ages, including children.
Rising Rates of Asthma
The number of people diagnosed with asthma continues to grow. Asthma affects 7.6% of all Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the majority of asthma sufferers are children from birth to 18 years of age. Asthma rates started to dip in the 1970s, but increased 75% between 1980 and 1995, and continue to rise over two decades later. While researchers are investigating the reasons why, several theories attempt to explain the prevalence of this disease.
Asthma trends indicate a genetic link, with children of asthmatic parents having a higher asthma risk. As more and more parents with asthma have children, the genes linked to asthma continue to be passed on. In the past 10 years, the role of genes in the development of asthma is becoming better understood, and certain genes have been pinpointed. Many experts believe the rate of asthma is rising due to a combination of factors, including genes and environmental.
Upping Our Cleanliness
The “hygiene hypothesis” is based on the premise that our modern way of life has made us too clean and we lack exposure to germs that help build up and train our immune systems. Our effort to keep our environments ultra-clean with the use of antimicrobial products is actually interfering with the natural course of our immune system development by removing the infectious agents that help test and strengthen it. Prior research has shown that children who grow up on farms have lower allergy and asthma rates, possibly due to their regular exposure to bacteria and microbes.
Poor Diet and Obesity
Many experts believe that lifestyle changes associated with diet and a decrease in activity are leading to the rising rates of certain conditions, like asthma and food allergies. With obesity rates climbing, many people are becoming more sedentary and practice poor health and lifestyle habits. Diets low in essential nutrients and vitamins, particularly vitamin D, may also be tied to the rise of asthma cases, particularly when a pregnant mother does not follow a healthy diet. Including more probiotics, antioxidants, and healthy sources of fat in your diet can help prevent asthma from developing.
Increased Use of Antibiotics
An increase in certain medications and the overprescribing of antibiotics could be contributing to the rise in asthma sufferers. Studies have shown that the increase in asthma and allergies coincides with a spike in antibiotic use. The overuse of antibiotics destroys healthy gut flora, lowering immune function and potentially making us more susceptible to diseases like asthma.
Children living in close proximity to high traffic areas are more likely to develop asthma or have more frequent flare-ups, particularly if allergies or asthma runs in the family. As population rates expand throughout the world and more cars are on the road, air pollution becomes a growing concern and will likely lead to more asthma cases and breathing disorders.
Increased C-Section Rates
It has been found that there is a higher risk of asthma in children when delivered via Cesarean section. A C-section changes the gut flora in the early stages of a baby’s life, causing an imbalance and making him or her more susceptible to infection and disease, including asthma. On the other hand, breastfeeding for at least 3 months helps protect the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Common Asthma Triggers
Numerous triggers can cause asthma attacks. Your allergist can help identify what you are allergic to, what aggravates your condition, and recommend ways to avoid exposure. Common risk factors include:
- Allergens, such as pollen, mold, pet dander, and dust mites, that can lead to an asthma flare-up and worsen symptoms.
- Exercise can narrow airways and increase breathing, aggravating the lungs of a person with asthma. As bronchial airways constrict, symptoms can worsen shortly after exercise has begun and last for 30 minutes or more unless treatment like an inhaler is used.
- Tobacco smoke can be very irritating to someone with asthma and lead to an attack. Studies have shown that children exposed to cigarette smoke, or those with a mother who smoked while they were in the womb, had a 20% higher risk of developing asthma and wheezing. Fumes, strong odors, and pollutants can also be a trigger.
- Medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can worsen asthma and lead to a flare-up of symptoms.
- Stress and anxiety may exacerbate asthma symptoms and cause an attack. A well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep can help lessen the frequency of asthma attacks.
- Respiratory infections are often responsible for triggering asthma issues, most often in children. Bronchitis, a cold, or sinus infection can cause asthma symptoms to be more intense.
- Weather changes may lead to asthma, including cold air in the winter or AC used in warmer months. Wind and blowing dust can also trigger an attack.
- Food additives may lead to an allergic reaction that progresses into an asthma attack. Preservatives like aspartame, parabens, MSG, nitrates, nitrites, and BHA are among some of the more common culprits.
Managing Asthma and Treatments
A cure for asthma does not exist, but once it is properly diagnosed and an asthma action plan is in place, it is easier to manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Asthma is a chronic disease, and working with your doctor is a part of your long-term treatment plan. Certain medications can help prevent asthma attacks and minimize symptoms to keep airways open and ease your breathing.
If you suspect you have asthma, an allergist can help investigate your medical history and see how your lungs work by conducting various breathing tests. For instance, spirometry can determine the air speed coming in and out of your lungs and how much air your lungs can hold when you blow into a sensory device. This is performed early on in diagnosis and throughout treatment to evaluate if your plan is helping to reduce your symptoms.
You may also deal with allergies if you are asthmatic, so allergy testing can be very useful for identifying the exact allergens that cause an asthmatic reaction. Knowing which triggers to avoid or getting treatment for these allergens may help reduce your asthma symptoms.
After your doctor determines what type of asthma you have, he or she will prescribe medication that will help prevent asthma attacks or stop one if it begins. Quick-relief options are used for people who need a temporary fix, as in before exercise begins. Bronchodilators, including inhalers, fall in this category and open inflamed airways so you can breathe easier.
Controller medications are prescribed for more long-term management of symptoms and are used every day to keep airways open and attacks at bay. If you have frequent asthma issues, these medications will most likely be part of your treatment plan.
Asthma sufferers are also more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, both viral or bacterial, so it is essential to keep up with annual flu and pneumonia vaccinations to help reduce the likelihood of becoming sick.
With proper treatment and a plan to manage your asthma, you can help minimize your symptoms and enjoy an active, healthy life. Work with your allergist to understand your asthma, what triggers it, and what you can do to reduce attacks. Most plans include:
- Quick relief and long-term medications
- Identifying ways to minimize triggers
- Knowing how to identify an attack and what to do when one strikes
- Working with your allergist, your family, and other doctors to keep them informed of your condition
To reduce the rising national and global rates of asthma, we likely need to confront larger public health issues such as air quality, obesity rates, and the potential overuse of antibiotics. Better understanding of the disease can hopefully reverse the current trend as well as prevent more people from receiving an asthma diagnosis. If you live with asthma, several symptoms can be improved by diet and exercise, breathing exercises, and finding a management plan that works for you.