KEEP CALM and breathe

KEEP CALM and breathe

ASTHMA EDUCATION series for the lay person. 

This is part of my 'everybody guide to understanding asthma.'
Most people have heard of the term asthma, whether they experience it or not. But what is it? Many agree that it's when someone can't breathe for one reason or another. They have an asthma "attack" and the prospect of experiencing such a thing can be frightening. Imagine trying to take a deep breath, but the only means is to suck it in through a straw. Some asthmatics have described their experience in this way.

You can't get enough air to satisfy your body's needs, your chest may hurt, you panic, and the circle of distress worsens as a result. This happens to a varying degree in those affected. One size doesn't fit all.

While the 'why?' it happens may be different for each individual, I'm going to explain the 'what' actually happens, in not-so-medical terms. When I counsel my patients with asthma and their parents, they often tell me they appreciate the basic breakdown, since throwing around medicalese words made them retreat to their own original misunderstanding of the disease process.

What is asthma?
Asthma is when the breathing tubes that make up your lungs get narrower, because of 3 major causes-- muscle squeezing, wallpaper swelling, and mucus overproduction.

Photo credits:
(1) University of Iowa Children's Hospital "Overview of Asthma"
(2) Journal of Applied Physiology
(3) The New York Times "Asthma- In Depth Report"

1. Your breathing tube muscles tighten around it [contract], squeezing the tube and making the opening skinnier.
2. The lining that coats the inside of the breathing tubes swells up because it gets irritated, making the opening skinnier.
3. That same lining also already has a job to produce mucus and fluid in order to keep bacteria, dirt and debris moving out of your airspace, so that they don't stay in your lungs. We want pure air in there only. When the lining is irritated or stimulated in some way, it can overproduce mucus, thereby......... you guessed it-- making the opening even skinnier.

The result of these processes are: no good air way. There IS no big, open, unblocked way for the air to get through the lungs.
No airway = no breathing = asthma attack [called asthma exacerbation].

Now that you know 'what' it is, you are empowered to know 'how' to correctly treat or prevent.
Knowing sometimes explains: why antibiotics aren't necessarily the immediate answer, or why an albuterol inhaler may need help from other types of medicines to solve an attack, or why keeping hydrated is an important part of managing asthma, or ...... etc.

Stay tuned. That's next in this series.

Want more information on asthma treatments, prevention, and what you can do to help, click here to schedule an appointment with me today!

Author: Karyn Hargett MD Pediatrician