Lung Health Day: Living and Exercising with Asthma
Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in the world. Millions of people suffer from this disease in which the bronchial tubes (airways) become inflamed, narrow, and swell. Although there are many shared symptoms among patients, not all cases of asthma are alike or have similar causes. Treating asthma is a matter of determining what triggers asthma attacks or episodes and adjusting your lifestyle to prevent exposing yourself to these triggers.
The Facts About Asthma
- 26 million Americans, or 1 in 13 people in the U.S., have asthma.
- Rates of asthma have increased in all age, sex, and racial groups since the early 1980s.
- Over 11.5 million people, 3 million of them children, report having asthma episodes or attacks in a calendar year.
- Asthma causes 11 million doctor's office visits and 1.7 million emergency department visits yearly.
- Asthma is the number one chronic disease for children.
- Nearly 14 million missed school days are caused yearly by asthma, making it the number one reason for children to miss school.
- The economic cost of asthma in a five-year period is almost $82 billion, between medical costs and lost work and school days.
Our common image of an asthma sufferer is someone carrying an inhaler and having episodes of wheezing and difficult breathing. These are visible symptoms, but their severity can differ between people with the disease. Many people may not even be aware they have asthma, especially if these symptoms are less severe.
Symptoms can include:
- Coughing: especially at night, during exercise, or when laughing.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Shortness of breath.
- Wheezing: a whistling sound in your chest while breathing, especially exhaling.
- Chest tightness.
Asthma symptoms in children often show up before age 5, but this can be difficult for even doctors to recognize due to the small bronchial tubes infants and very young children possess. Asthma symptoms may be mistaken for the effects of head or chest colds, or other illnesses.
Pediatric asthma symptoms can include:
- Coughing: especially at night. Watch for nagging coughs that linger for days or weeks.
- Wheezing or whistling sounds while breathing, especially exhaling.
- Frequent colds that settle in the chest.
- Difficulty breathing: watch for fast breathing or breathing that causes the skin around the ribs or neck to pull in tightly.
Asthma Risk Factors and Causes
The prevalence of asthma has increased for decades, and although there's no single answer why, there are some relevant risk factors:
- Family History: a parent with asthma increases your risk of developing it 3 to 6 times above someone whose parents don't have it.
- Obesity: risk of asthma increases in both children and adults who are overweight, due to increased bodily inflammation, and obesity rates have risen.
- Allergies: allergic conditions increase the risk factor for asthma, and allergy rates are also rising.
- Viral Respiratory Infections: children who have issues with respiratory infection are at increased risk of developing asthma.
- Air Pollution: exposure to ozone raises the risk for asthma. People who grew up or currently live in urban areas are at increased asthma risk.
- Occupational Exposure: exposure to certain elements in the workplace, as well as industrial or wood dusts, chemical fumes and vapors, and molds, can cause the development of asthma even in adults with no history of it.
- Smoking: although smoking rates have decreased, smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke are still at increased risk of asthma.
Racial factors come into play in asthma rates in the U.S. Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma, while African-Americans have the highest prevalence of childhood asthma. African-Americans with asthma also have higher mortality rates and hospital admission rates. These statistics are attributed to poverty, urban air quality, and lack of patient education and quality health care.
Asthma is not just obstruction of the airway, but also inflammation. The muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes constrict, limiting the ability to breathe. Asthma attacks have a variety of triggers, some of which wouldn't be immediately obvious:
- Illness: including influenza, sinusitis, and upper respiratory infections.
- Exposure to allergens: especially airborne ones like animal dander, dust mites, or pollen.
- Extreme weather conditions or changes in weather.
- Exposure to smoke or cigarette smoke.
- Exposure to strong smells: perfumes and other odors.
- Strenuous exercise.
- Strong emotional reactions: severe stress, crying, laughing.
Managing and Living with Asthma
Managing asthma is about knowing what type of asthma you have. Asthma isn't just one condition, but defined both by the pathways of inflammation and by the sources and triggers of asthmatic episodes. Some of these include:
- Allergic asthma
- Aspirin-induced asthma
- Cough-variant asthma
- Exercise-induced asthma
- Nighttime asthma
- Occupational asthma
- Steroid-resistant asthma
Knowing your type of asthma, especially as defined by your triggers, is key to managing it. Adapting your lifestyle to ensure your environment and habits prevent triggering attacks or episodes is vital to living comfortably with the disease. Steps may include:
- Tracking your symptoms for ideal medication intake.
- Removing triggers such as allergens from your environment.
- Consulting with your doctor on an exercise plan that helps strengthen your lungs without triggering an episode.
Exercising with Asthma
You might be reluctant to work out, but regular exercise can improve asthma symptoms by increasing lung capacity and reducing inflammation. A well-considered exercise plan guided by a medical professional is vital to ensuring you can exercise safely with asthma, so read on to learn what to discuss with your doctor about creating an exercise plan for you!
While asthma is always chronic condition that causes the airways of your lungs to become inflamed and swollen, leading to wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing, different people will have different levels of sensitivity to environmental and physical triggers. Sometimes exercise itself can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms: this is known as exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). Finding the right forms of activity to adapt to EIB can be a challenge.
When embarking on an exercise program, you'll want to ask your doctor a lot of questions about working out most safely and effectively with your asthma. You may have questions about:
- Using medication: Always have your asthma medication available as well as any devices like a spacer. Be alert for asthma symptoms developing during exercise; if they do, stop and take your reliever medication. For those with EIB, always use your pre-exercise medicine (most commonly a rescue inhaler with a bronchodilator).
- Adjusting to weather: Avoid exercising when the air is cool and dry. Cold, dry air can tighten your airways, so in cooler weather you may want to exercise with a mask or scarf, or just exercise indoors. Keep track of pollen counts and air pollution counts if you have allergic asthma.
- Adjusting to activity: Warm-up exercises and an appropriate cool down period after a workout will help gradually raise and lower your heart rate and breathing rate, placing less stress on your lungs.
- Sticking to a regular routine: It helps to set achievable daily goals, as regular exercise will increase your lung capacity.
- Knowing your limits: Restrict or suspend exercise when you're sick, particularly if you have a viral respiratory infection like a cold. Pay attention to your symptoms and know when to take breaks and stop exercising.
Breathing effectively is important during physical activity. Remember to:
- Inhale (breathe in) before starting an exercise motion and exhale (breathe out) during the most difficult part of an exercise.
- Take slow breaths and pace yourself.
- Purse your lips while breathing out.
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Please consult your doctor or other qualified medical professional before stopping or starting any medications, supplements, or health regimens.