What Causes Asthma?

Asthma is at an all time high in the United States with one-in-13 people suffering from asthma. Approximately 25 million Americans have asthma; that’s 7.6 percent of adults and 8.4 percent of children.

The exact cause of asthma is unknown, with many experts suggesting the causes consist of both genetic and environmental factors.Research has identified many triggers that can increase your chances of developing asthma or causing an attack.

According to the latest estimates by the World Health Authority (WHO) there were 383,000 premature deaths caused by asthma in 2015. By recognizing the potential triggers of asthma and with the appropriate management, many more people can enjoy a better quality of life.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways that affects people of all ages but most often starts in childhood. Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children with about six million children affected in the U.S. alone. Children who are more at risk include those who have a low birth weight, are exposed to tobacco smoke, have parents with asthma or have allergies including skin allergies like eczema.

One thing that’s common to asthma at any age is that when asthma triggers come into contact with the airways they cause an asthma attack. An asthma attack causes spasms of the muscles around the airways which causes them to restrict, inflammation and swelling of the membranes lining the airways and large amounts of mucus which further narrow the passageway of air.

We can’t fully explain why some people have asthma yet others don’t, but we do know there’s a strong genetic component. What we can do is identify some of the many asthma triggers and by reducing our exposure to them take an active role in managing asthma and reducing the frequency of attacks. Being more aware of potential environmental, food or even occupational allergens can help with asthma prevention by reducing both the severity and frequency of attacks.

The Genetics of Asthma

Let’s start at the very beginning. Just like most allergies, asthma can be traced back to your genes and runs in families. Children with one parent with asthma are 25 percent more likely to suffer with asthma and with two parents who both have asthma the probability goes up to 50 percent. Although the recurrent risk of asthma is much higher in monozygotic(identical) twins than dizygotic(fraternal) twins, it’s only at 75 percent. Basically you’d expect two identical twins from the same egg with the same genes to both have the same chance of having asthma, but instead environmental factors can influence whether they suffer from asthma attacks or not.

The problem with genetics is there’s very little you can do personally. In the future, scientists may be able to identify all the genes that cause asthma (they only estimate they have knowledge of a third of them so far) and be able to formulate a strategy to prevent asthma. Until then if mom, pop or another loved member of your family has asthma, there’s more chance you’ll develop the condition too. By trying to cut down your contact with known asthma triggers or allergens you can prevent or reduce the onset of asthma attacks.

Most Well-Known Asthma Triggers

Allergies or Allergic Asthma (Extrinsic Asthma)

The most common cause of asthma is allergies. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people who have asthma also have allergies to airborne substances like trees, grass and weed pollens, mold, animal dander and feathers, dust mites and cockroach particles. One study in particular found that children who were exposed to cockroaches in low income homes were four times more likely to have asthma. Asthma triggered by dust exposure is usually due to a dust mite allergy.

Food allergies can also trigger asthma although asthma very rarely occurs as the only symptom. Part of an anaphylactic reaction may include the narrowing of airways associated with asthma. The most common food substances associated with asthmatic triggers are eggs, cow’s milk, peanuts, soy, wheat (or gluten), fish and shellfish and salads or fresh fruits. Food preservatives including sulfite additives like sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite or sodium sulfite often used in food processing or preparation can cause isolated asthma in people who are sensitive.

Irritants in the Air or Nonallergic Asthma (Intrinsic Asthma)

Irritants found in our everyday environment including tobacco or wood smoke, air pollution, viral illnesses, household cleaning products and perfumes can trigger asthma. Even cold air can trigger asthma in some people.

People who smoke are far more at risk of getting asthma. Smoking with asthma can make the symptoms much worse with excessive coughing and wheezing. Pregnant women who smoke during pregnancy increase the risk of wheezing or asthma in their babies who will have a worse lung function than babies who didn’t smoke. Quitting smoking as an asthma sufferer is the most important thing you can do to protect your lungs.

Occupational Asthma

Asthma can be induced by triggers in the workplace that may include dust, dyes, gases, fumes, industrial chemicals, animal proteins or rubber latex. The most common causes of occupational asthma are isoyanantes and flour or grain. Occupations with the highest rates of asthma seen by chest physicians were vehicle paint technicians and bakers or flour confectioners.

Exercise-Induced Asthma

Exercise may be recommended by most doctors but for somebody with asthma an attack can be triggered within just a few minutes of starting to exercise and can often continue 10 to 15 minutes after physical activity. As many as 90 percent of asthma sufferers also complain of exercise-induced asthma or EIB (exercise induced bronchoconstriction).

When airways narrow as a result of exercise, it can be a result of loss of heat or water from the lungs during exertion due to breathing in air that’s drier or colder than that already in the body. Cold air tends to contain less moisture than warm air and covering the mouth and airways with a scarf or face mask during exercise can help reduce the asthma attacks.

Wheezing after physical activity is often the first signs of asthma in many children. A peak flow meter test can help isolate the cause of asthma and whether external environmental factors are also contributing.

Heartburn as an Asthma Trigger

Especially at night when an asthma sufferer is lying down, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) more commonly known as heartburn can act as a trigger for an asthma attack. When the valve between the stomach and the esophagus doesn’t function properly as with GERD, stomach acids back up into the esophagus and if they reach the throat or airways cause irritation, inflammation and can trigger an asthma attack. In patients having medical or surgical antireflux treatment, asthma symptoms were found to improve in 67 percent of the patients.

What Does the Future Hold for Asthma?

Unfortunately there’s no cure for asthma on the horizon yet. Many effective treatments are available that can decrease the severity of asthma symptoms and the frequency of attacks. We also know a lot more about what triggers asthma attacks. By changing your lifestyle and medications you can improve your breathing and your quality of life too.

An appointment with your physician can help you to recognize what type of asthma you have, what the potential triggers are, what treatments can best help you and a plan for dealing with attacks. Living with asthma doesn’t have to be hard, just a bit more challenging.

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