Your Health

Asthma

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which the lower airways are constricted, making breathing difficult. In people who are predisposed to the disease, environmental factors cause surrounding muscles to tighten, tissue to inflame, and mucus to form.

What are the symptoms?

Typical asthma symptoms include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Asthma is a serious problem that can lead to serious health consequences. Pay attention to these warning signs of uncontrolled asthma:

  • symptoms that make daily activities difficult
  • coughing or wheezing for more than two nights in a row
  • shortness of breath without exercise
  • increased shortness of breath during exercise
  • prescribed medication levels that fail to control your symptoms
  • peak flow meter readings that are lower than 85% of your typical highest reading

What things can trigger asthma?

The following environmental factors and activities can trigger an asthma attack:

  • dust mites, pets, feathers, or other allergens such as grass, tree, or ragweed pollens
  • cigarette smoke, fumes, perfumes, or other strong odours
  • air pollution
  • cold air
  • certain foods such as shellfish or nuts
  • food or drug additives such as tartrazine (a yellow dye) or sulphites (preserving agents)
  • certain drugs such as some heart and blood pressure medications, ibuprofen, and ASA (for more information, ask your Peoples pharmacist)
  • colds and flus
  • stress or emotional difficulties
  • vigorous exercise, especially in dry or cold air

Your workplace may expose you to triggers. Pay attention to your symptoms and note if they get worse at work and better at home or on holidays.

What are the risk factors?

Asthma is on the increase in Canada — it affects 1 in 10 children and approximately 1 in 20 adults. It may develop at any age but typically does so during childhood. However, at least 1 in 4 children who develop asthma outgrow it.

You may be at risk of developing asthma if any of the following risk factors apply to you:

  • allergies or asthma run in your family
  • you have allergic sinusitis
  • you have eczema

How is it diagnosed?

Asthma is diagnosed by a doctor’s examination and breathing tests.

How can I prevent asthma?

There is no way to prevent asthma. However, you can help prevent young children from developing asthma by not smoking around them. Second hand smoke can increase their chances of developing the disease.

How can I treat asthma?

There is no cure for asthma, but understanding the various aspects of the condition will help you reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. You should identify your triggers and learn how to control them. Also, find out how and when to use your medications. If you have children with asthma, learn about their condition and how you can make their treatment plan a normal part of school, family, and social life. You can reduce or eliminate symptoms using the lifestyle modifications and medications described in the following sections.

Lifestyle modifications

Once you have identified triggers, eliminate or control them. Use the following strategies:

  • Stop smoking and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Take steps at home to reduce exposure to dust, mould, pollens, furry animals, and cockroaches. Wall-to-wall carpets are undesirable because they collect allergens such as dust and animal hairs. Asthma triggers can be common in homes because they are usually sealed for heating purposes.
  • Increase your intake of vitamins A and E using food or supplements. Improving your diet may improve your asthma symptoms — researchers have found that severe asthma sufferers do not get enough vitamin A and E.

Medications

There are two basic types of medications for treating asthma: anti-inflammatory medications and bronchodilators.

Anti-inflammatory medications

Anti-inflammatory medications, or “preventers,” are the primary form of asthma treatment. They prevent symptoms by reducing swelling and inflammation in your airways. Anti-inflammatory medications are usually inhaled twice a day. If you have serious asthma, you may need more frequent doses or oral tablets.

Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators, or “relievers,” work by relaxing the small muscles that constrict your airways, which opens up your air passages. Bronchodilators are usually inhaled as necessary to control symptoms, up to three times a week. Occasionally, you can use a bronchodilator ahead of time to prevent symptoms if you know you will be exposed to asthma triggers such as smoke or pets. If bronchodilators do not help your symptoms, you will need to use anti-inflammatory medications.

Using inhalers incorrectly is one of the most common reasons for asthma attacks. Make sure your technique is correct by periodically demonstrating it to your doctor or Peoples pharmacist. Also, make sure you take the correct dose of medication at the right frequency for your condition. Other types of delivery systems such as nebulizers and aids such as spacers or aerochambers may make life easier for those who find inhalers difficult to use (for example, small children).

If you are on medication and your asthma symptoms worsen, see your doctor or Peoples pharmacist. You should be treated quickly before your asthma gets worse. Contact your Peoples pharmacist for information on other types of asthma medications.

Consider monitoring your asthma using a peak flow meter, a simple tube-shaped device that measures how quickly you can blow air out of your lungs. If you are having problems controlling your asthma, it helps to keep track of peak flow readings, including times and dates. This information can help you tailor your medication doses to your needs.

Treating severe attacks

Call your doctor or an ambulance immediately if you notice emergency symptoms such as extreme shortness of breath, severe coughing, sweating, or bluish nails and lips. Use a bronchodilator as a “rescue medication” if you notice severe symptoms.

Where can I find out more about asthma?

For more information about your medications or other health issues:

  • talk to your Peoples pharmacist
  • read People First, a health magazine of practical information available free from your neighbourhood Peoples Drug Mart or Peoples Pharmacy

Other resources

Asthma Society of Canada
130 Bridgeland Avenue, Suite 425
Toronto, ON M6A 1Z4
Toll-free: 1 800 787-3880
www.asthma.ca or www.asthmakids.ca

The Lung Association
3 Raymond Street, Suite 300
Ottawa, ON K1R 1A3
1-888-566-LUNG (1-888-566-5864)
www.lung.ca

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