About asthma

The narrowing of the airways in asthma is due to inflammation and swelling, a tightening of the airway muscles (causing them to spasm) and the production of excess mucus.

The causes of asthma are still not clearly understood, but genetic and environmental factors come into play.

There’s often a family history of asthma, eczema and/or hay fever, or other allergies. Children with one asthmatic parent are three to six times more likely to develop asthma.

This is due to alterations in a number of genes which control airway inflammation, and the antibody produced after exposure to environmental stimuli like allergens. This type of antibody is known as IgE and can be measured in the blood and by skin prick testing.

Among the environmental triggers responsible for attacks:

  • inhaled allergens such as pollen or dust mites, and irritants such as perfumes or cleaning fluids
  • cigarette smoke (through passive or active exposure)
  • infection with a cold or flu
  • changes in temperature or weather
  • exercise.
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  • Risks
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnosis & Treatment

In children, asthma is twice as common in boys as girls, but severe asthma affects both equally. Adult women, on the other hand, have a higher incidence of asthma. Female asthmatics aged 75 years and over are almost three times more likely to die from the disease compared to their male counterparts.

Deaths from asthma are higher in:

  • People living in remote areas of Australia compared to major cities
  • Indigenous Australians
  • People residing in areas of greatest socioeconomic disadvantage.

The symptoms of asthma may vary from person to person, and from time to time. Some people may have all these symptoms while other people may only have a wheeze or cough:

  • a dry, irritating, persistent cough, particularly at night, early morning, or during exercise
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest.

Asthma attack

The symptoms of an asthma attack (also known as an acute exacerbation) are shortness of breath or  struggling to breathe, wheezing, and chest tightness. In severe cases this can lead to exhaustion, low blood pressure & arrhythmia. Children might also feel chest pain.

These attacks should be treated right away.

Although there’s no precise or immediate diagnostic test, asthma is usually identified through a pattern of symptoms and how a patient responds to therapy.

Lung function tests are used in a differential diagnosis to rule out other lung diseases. Spirometry is a common test that’s used to assess breathing patterns and changes in asthmatics.

Doctors may then identify the allergen(s) or stimuli the person may be sensitive to, by testing for the specific IgE antibodies (e.g. using a skin prick test and serum assays).

Based on the results, an asthma management plan is developed in consultation with a specialist. Tailored inhaler therapy and minimising exposure to environmental triggers are the mainstay of ongoing treatment in the absence of a definitive cure.

The place of allergen desensitisation is still controversial and will require more research.

This content is provided for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, please consult a suitably qualified healthcare professional.