Asthma, often seen as a minor health condition, affects more than 25 million people in the U.S., kills 3,300 of them annually, and causes more than one-fourth of emergency room visits. The number of people with the disease is greater than those with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer combined. 300 million people worldwide have asthma.
Much more than the inconvenience many consider it, this is an extremely complicated disease that no one really understands. It is not even known what causes attacks, since different things trigger the reaction in different patients. But what is known is that in many people the disease is a life-and death battle.
Leading charities and organizations such as Asthma UK, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLB) are trying to change this perception. The AAFA says over 50 percent of cases in the U.S. cases are caused by allergies, a form of the disease that is triggered by allergens that are inhaled, such as pollen, dust, mold, and pet dander. Non-allergic asthma can be triggered by stress, anxiety, cold air, dry air, exercise, hyperventilation, and viruses.
Every day 44,000 Americans are affected by asthma attacks, which are the sudden and severe onset of the symptoms of asthma. During an attack the lining of the airways becomes inflamed and the airway cells produce thicker mucus than usual. This results in symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, and wheezing which may range from minor to severe.
With one-fourth of all emergency room visits and thousands of deaths each year caused by asthma it is an expensive killer. According to the AAFA, asthma death rates have increased by over 50 percent since the early 1980s. Death rates among children under the age of 19 have increased nearly 80 percent, and the incidence of the disease is expected to continue to rise.
It is not jut the public that does not take the disease seriously. Some people who have asthma fail to control their disease. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma Immunology (AAAAI) says that less than half of people with asthma know how to avoid triggers, and that nearly half of those that do know how to avoid the triggers fail to do so.
It is unclear exactly what causes asthma. While it is known that the disease is hereditary, meaning a person will be at higher risk for developing it if a relative has it, research is also showing that cigarette smoke exposure, antibiotic use in children, and viral infections may increase risk as well. There is also the “hygiene hypothesis,” which theorizes that there are healthy microbes that may protect against inflammatory disorders such as asthma and allergies. This might explain why people in urban areas are more prone to asthma, because these healthy microbes are more prevalent in rural areas.
May has been declared National Asthma and Allergy Awareness month by the AAFA. May is a peak season for asthma sufferers, and the AAFA says it is a perfect time for education about the disease and how to manage it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the important thing to remember is that it can be controlled. And better control of asthma means reducing the number of deaths and emergency room visits for a disease that many consider not serious.
By Beth A. Balen