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Diseases and Conditions

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Definition of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways within the lungs that affects over 17 million people in the United States.

Description of Asthma

The lung is the main organ of the respiratory system and its main function is respiration (exchange of gases between the environment and the body). Air enters the nose where it is filtered, warmed and humidified. After passing through the trachea (windpipe), the air travels into the lungs through the bronchi (a system of branching airway tubes that become smaller as they reach deeper into the lung). The smallest of the bronchi, the bronchioles, open into balloon-like sacs called alveoli.

An asthma attack occurs when these airways narrow and the muscles around them tightly contract (this is called bronchospasm). The membranes lining the inner walls of the airways become swollen and inflamed, and the glands within these walls produce excess mucus.

An asthma attack can be brief or it can last for several days.

Causes and Risk Factors of Asthma

The two main factors that contribute to asthma are inflammation of the airway passages and hyperreactive bronchi.

When triggered by stimulus (see examples below), certain cells lining the airways release chemical substances called mediators that lead to inflammation. This inflammation causes the airway passages to swell, the cells lining the passages to produce excess mucus, and the airway opening to narrow.

Hyperreactivity means that when the bronchi are exposed to stimulus they respond in an exaggerated way by constricting the airway muscle and making it difficult to breathe.

The stimulus or "triggers" that can induce an asthma attack are:

allergens (substances to which people are allergic), such as pollens, foods, dust, mold, feathers or animal dander

irritants in the air, such as dirt, cigarette smoke, gases and air pollution

odors in the household, such as household cleaners, perfumes, paints, varnishes, fabric softeners, laundry detergents and cooking fumes

irritants in the workplace, such as fumes and vapors from wood products and metals

metabisulfite - a food preservative found in dried fruits, fruit juices, beer, wine, salad bars and vegetables

respiratory infections, such as colds, flu, sore throat and bronchitis

too much exertion

emotional stress, such as excessive fear or excitement

weather conditions - very cold, windy or sudden changes in the weather

medications, such as aspirin or related drugs, as well as some drugs used to treat glaucoma and high blood pressure

menstrual cycle - Women with asthma occasionally have increased symptoms just before their menstrual period.

nighttime - Asthma often worsens at night for a few reasons. The body releases chemicals during the night that may alter lung function. Also, the body's temperature tends to drop at night, which causes the airways to cool. Lastly, an exposure to allergens during the day takes up to several hours to affect the body. When the body reacts, it usually coincides with the nighttime hours.

Symptoms of Asthma

Airway inflammation and resulting narrowing air passages lead to the following symptoms of asthma:

•  wheezing
•  cough - chronic or recurring (worse particularly at night and in the early hours of the morning)
•  pain or a tight feeling in the chest
•  shortness of breath
•  flaring of the nostrils when breathing in (especially in children)
•  interrupted talking
•  agitation
•  hyperinflation (appearance of hunched shoulders, hunching forward or preferring not to lie down)

Diagnosis of Asthma

Asthma is sometimes hard to diagnose, because it can resemble other respiratory problems such as emphysema, bronchitis and lower respiratory infection. Therefore, the diagnosis of asthma is based on:

1. repeated careful measurement of how efficiently the patient can force air out of the lungs
2. a thorough medical history and physical examination
3. chest x-rays
4. laboratory tests

Spirometers and peak flow meters are used to measure how efficiently the patient can force air out of the lungs. Spirometers record the rate at which a person exhales air from the lungs and the total volume exhaled. Peak flow is a measurement of the fastest rate at which a person can force air out the lungs. The patient inhales and exhales into a small hand held device called a peak flow meter. A simple scale on the meter registers a value for peak flow. This reading helps the doctor evaluate current lung function. Laboratory tests may include blood and allergy tests.

NOTE: Homoeopathy treats the disorder effectively and permanently.