Asthma, technically, is a chronic episodic but reversible airway obstruction caused by inflammation and constriction of the air passages. It is a member of a family of diseases known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD). It results in 500,000 hospital visits per year for our fellow 17 million Asthmatics, 1/3 of which are children.
"Say what? Back up and try again, lass...I thought you said I could understand this page!!??" Well read on...
What all this gobbledygook means is that the lungs experience inflammation (they get irritated and produce mucus) and then constriction (the airways swell up), making it difficult for us to breathe. It means that it can often be stopped and reversed, that it is not always a noticable part of life, but that it will never completely go away (there is NO CURE). It also means we have alot of fellow travelers on this road. Most of us, most of the time, do what we need to do and manage to keep our asthma from becoming a threat to our health. However, we must always remember that the threat is always a possibility.
Ok, so how did my disease get the name it has? Well, as we know all self-respecting diseases have names that come from either Latin or Greek. Ours, being of particularly good taste, gets its name from the Greek - meaning to puff and pant. Since Asthmatics wheeze and pant and have shortness of breath, it makes perfect sense to me.
Asthma is a lung disease, yes...but it's actually a perfect example of a normal body function becoming exaggerated. Under normal conditions, we breathe in order to supply the body with sufficient oxygen and to remove excess amounts of carbon dioxide. Air comes in the nose and mouth, goes through the Respiratory Tree to the air sacs where the oxygen is exchanged. On the way this air is filtered repeatedly to keep irritants out of the lungs. Our lungs maintain a certain amount of fluid/mucus for protection, and oddly enough, minor inflamation is essential to the functioning of a normal lung. Many times a day, these inflamations protect the lungs from the viruses, bacteria and pollutants to which we are exposed. These nasties are trapped by the mucous-coated airways and then sent by tiny hairs away from the lungs. Histamines and Leukotrienes (chemicals in the body) will help expel these irritants after the buildup reaches a certain level the body has decided upon. Normally, none of this activity produces symptoms. All in all, it works pretty well and is sorta cool, huh?
However, as asthmatics, we have to be different. Asthmatics hyper-react to the process. When our lungs become irritated, histamine and leukotrienes begin their irritating ways right off and refuse to stop no matter how many times you tell them (Kind of like some people I know). Symptoms occur with the buildup and it becomes somewhat similar to stratching poison ivy which already has begun to itch and irritate the skin. Eventually, since the reaction does not stop when the irritants are removed, the smooth muscles in the airways think your body is in serious danger and will begin to swell and spasm in an attempt to rid the body of the problem...
An endless and potentially dangerous cycle begins, the airways are now partially blocked and it becomes difficult to get oxygen to the bloodstream. This will cause more irritation as the body produces more mucus, and the muscles will continue to spasm as more mucus does not "solve" the problem.
If this is not interrupted and reversed, it can progress into a deadly condition known as "status asthmaticus". The monster lurks in our lungs waiting for an opportunity to strike, but we can put the brakes on to an extent by removing triggers from our lives, taking medications as prescribed by our doctor, taking care of our health, and like measures. These do not guarantee an attack free life, but they will help.
On to Diagnosis
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