Ever Wonder What Causes Asthma?

By Howard J. Bennett

Since the allergy season is here, I wanted to talk a little bit about asthma. Doctors see kids with asthma almost every day during the spring and summer months. Although asthma is common, it is often misunderstood.

First, what is asthma? It’s a condition that causes a person’s bronchial tubes (they bring oxygen to the lungs) to tighten, swell and make extra mucus. Although asthma can be serious, most kids have milder forms of the condition. The more you know about asthma, the better you will be able to treat it.

People with asthma usually cough and wheeze. Sometimes they have trouble breathing and have to go to the doctor or the hospital to be treated. Think about an asthma attack like this: If you normally get air through a big pipe and were suddenly getting it through a straw, you would gasp for breath.

Asthma is usually triggered by allergies, pollution, or respiratory infections. Although colds and the flu can set off an asthma attack, you can’t catch asthma from another person! Therefore, being around someone with asthma is no different from being around anyone else who is coughing and spreading germs all over the place.

Some people get asthma attacks while exercising. If you have trouble breathing or cough a lot when you run around, tell your mom or dad what’s going on. Exercise induced asthma is more common in cold weather. You doctor can give you medicine to take before you exercise.

About 75 percent of kids who develop asthma have a family history of the condition. This means that most kids with asthma have another relative who has the problem or had it as a child. However, asthma can look like other problems and doctors sometimes miss it. I become suspicious about asthma if any of the following has occurred in a child’s medical or family history:

• chronic cough

• recurring bronchitis

• recurring pneumonia

• people who have gotten inhalers for cough (even if the doctor never said they had asthma)

• coughs that linger after most colds

People with “coughing asthma” do not wheeze or develop trouble breathing. Typically, they cough for two or three weeks every time they catch a cold. If you or anyone in your family develops a lingering cough with most colds, talk to your doctor to see if you have this mild form of asthma.

All types of asthma can be treated with inhaled medicines that go into a person’s lungs to reduce the spasm, swelling, and mucus. Sometimes doctors use oral medicines to treat asthma as well.

Bonus Fact: Nowadays, asthma is also called reactive airway disease. This term is used because it better describes what is happening in a person’s body during an attack. In other words, your bronchial tubes are “reactive” (sensitive) when exposed to viruses, pollution, or allergens like tree pollen.

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 5/25/09.)

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