Asthma is one of the most common diseases affecting the lungs. A serious disease, it affects all races and both sexes equally. This disease affects millions. Many of us recognize asthma symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness and gasping for breath. However, few of us know what is going on inside the body of a person with asthma.

When we breathe, we inhale oxygen through the nose and mouth. The air passes down the trachea or windpipe through the two bronchi that branch off into the millions of tiny airways that make up the lungs. Here the inhaled oxygen enters the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is pulled out of the blood and sent back up the airway to be exhaled.

The airways are surrounded by muscles, which are normally relaxed to help air flow. However, in a person with asthma, these airways are constricted. Since these airways are small and tight, they are perpetually inflamed becoming red, swollen and irritated.

What is Asthma?
What is Asthma? [Illustration by Shiju George]
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The body’s airways are highly sensitive to various factors. An asthma attack can be triggered by an allergic response to irritants or allergens like tobacco smoke, cold, pollen, cockroaches, horses, dust, feathers, or even by exercise, cold air and, sometimes, stress.

When the airways encounter these factors, they trigger a response in the body. The muscles surrounding the airways constrict, producing a tight feeling in the chest. At the same time, the bronchii produce thick mucus called phlegm, which further clogs the airways.

As air gets trapped in the constricted airways, the person is unable to fully inhale or exhale. The person wheezes and gasps for breath. During a mild attack, coughing or a slight tightness may be the only symptom. In a more severe attack, the person’s lips and nails might turn gray or blue due to a lack of oxygen.

Asthma that is not well controlled can cause many problems. People miss work or school, go to the hospital, or even die because of their asthma. Asthma attacks usually last from half an hour to several hours. Prolonged or frequent attacks of asthma may prove harmful if the patient is weak or suffers from malnutrition. Some 35-40 percent of childhood asthma cases improve at puberty.

A doctor identifies asthma by conducting skin tests for various allergies. Based on these tests, doctors prescribe drugs such as epinephrine or ephedrine in the initial stages. Serious asthma cases, however, may need to take corticosteroids. Sometimes oxygen may also become essential for such a patient.

Most asthmatics use an inhaler or a bronchodilator that contains a medicine. These drugs mimic the effect of adrenaline on the airways and open them up. For those who prefer Ayurvedic medicine, there is cromolyn, which has little or no side effects. It is derived from the herb ammivisnaga. Homeopathy too approaches the treatment of asthma holistically, and many patients of asthma have found long-term relief through this method of treatment.

Whatever method of treatment or relief one may opt for, asthma can be controlled but, as of now, this disease cannot be completely cured.