10 Things You Should Know About Asthma

iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk
iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk

To anyone with asthma, the feeling of an attack is unmistakable. Patients have compared an asthma attack's feeling of breathlessness, caused by inflammation in the lungs and airways, to being smothered by a pillow or having an elephant sit on their chest. Medical experts have already figured out some aspects of asthma, like how to diagnose and treat it, but other components, like what causes asthma and how to cure it, remain unclear. From the triggers people encounter at work to the connection to allergies, here are some facts about asthma symptoms and treatments you should know.

1. Asthma attacks are related to allergies.

The physical process that occurs when someone has a sneezing fit during pollen season is similar to what happens during an asthma attack. But while the former causes discomfort, the latter produces potentially life-threatening symptoms. When people with allergies are exposed to an allergen like pollen, they produce antibodies that bind to that allergen. This signals the body to release the chemicals that cause allergic symptoms. In most people, the symptoms are limited to the head, such as a runny nose or watery eyes, but in people with asthma, they're felt in the lungs. If the lungs are inflamed, the airways that carry air swell up and fill with mucus, constricting airflow and causing common asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Such asthma attacks can be fatal when patients can’t get enough air to their lungs.

2. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease among children.

Asthma is common, affecting 25 million in the U.S. alone, and of those patients, about 7 million are children. Most people with the disease develop it during childhood. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic illness among kids, and each year, students miss 13.8 million school days because of it.

3. Asthma may be inherited.

Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes asthma, but they know it sometimes runs in families. A 2010 study found that people with one parent with the condition were nearly twice as likely to have it themselves, and people with a parent and a grandparent with asthma were four times more likely to develop it. Because asthma is connected to allergies, a genetic disposition toward allergies, known as atopy, may explain some inherited asthma cases.

4. Asthma is surprisingly easy to diagnose.

One of the simplest ways to diagnose asthma is through a lung function test. If a patient is reporting asthma symptoms (coughing, chest tightness, a feeling of not getting enough air), their doctor may check the strength of their exhalations before and after having them use an inhaler. If their breathing improves with the medicine, they likely have asthma. An X-ray of the patient’s chest can also be used to reach an asthma diagnosis.

5. Kids who grow up around germs are less likely to have asthma.

A person’s environment early in life may also play a role in whether or not they develop asthma. People who grew up in rural areas, around animals, and in large families are less likely to have asthma than those who did not. One possible explanation is the hygiene hypothesis: According to this theory, kids who were exposed to germs and pathogens while their immune systems were developing are better equipped to deal with allergens, while kids who were sheltered from germs may be more likely to have an exaggerated (and in the case of asthma, potentially deadly) immune response to harmless substances. The hygiene hypothesis hasn’t been proven, however, and it’s definitely not an excuse to expose children to infections in an attempt to strengthen them against asthma attacks in the future.

6. Asthma triggers are everywhere.

To manage their symptoms, doctors tell asthma patients to limit exposure to their triggers when possible. Common asthma triggers include irritants and allergens like dust, tobacco smoke, car exhaust, mold, pet dander, and smoke from burning wood. Triggers that don’t come from the environment, like colds, sinus infections, acid reflux, and hyperventilation brought on by stress, can be even harder to avoid.

7. There's one asthma trigger patients shouldn't avoid.

Physical activity causes fast breathing, which can provoke asthma attacks in some people with the condition. There’s even a type of asthma called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction that specifically describes people who suffer from these kinds of attacks. But the risks of living a sedentary lifestyle outweigh those of exercising carefully, even with asthma. Instead of cutting out cardio altogether, doctors work with patients to come up with an exercise plan that’s safe for them. This might include warming up and using an inhaler before working out, practicing cool-down activities afterward, and wearing scarves or masks to limit exposure to irritants that may also trigger asthma symptoms.

8. There are two types of asthma treatments.

Long-term controllers and quick-relievers are the two types of medications used to treat asthma. Immediate medicines like short-acting beta agonists and anticholinergics relax muscles in the airways when flare-ups occur, and they’re typically administered directly to the lungs with an inhaler. Long-term medications help keep asthma symptoms under control over time are taken as often as once a day, regardless of whether symptoms are present. They include inhaled long-acting beta agonists and corticosteroids, biologic injections, and theophylline and leukotriene modifier pills and liquids. All of these medications suppress asthma symptoms by either relaxing muscles, reducing swelling, or preventing inflammation in the airways.

9. Asthma can be an occupational hazard.

Occupational asthma develops when a patient’s triggers come from their work environment. According to the National Institutes of Health, wood dust, grain dust, animal dander, fungi, and various chemicals are some of the most common asthma triggers that patients encounter in the workplace. Bakers, farmers, laboratory workers, millers, and woodworkers predisposed to asthma are all at higher risk.

10. There's no cure for asthma, but symptoms can lessen over time.

Though asthma is treatable, there’s no cure for the chronic illness. Some people, however, do appear to grow out of the condition after suffering from it as kids. It’s possible for asthma symptoms to become less severe and go into remission as patients get older, but once someone is diagnosed with asthma, the risk of an episode never goes away completely. Changes in hormone levels are a factor that could possibly bring asthma symptoms back in patients who haven’t experienced an attack in years.

How to Make a DIY Face Mask at Home—No Sewing Required

Sean Gallup, iStock via Getty Images
Sean Gallup, iStock via Getty Images

By the time the CDC told all Americans to start wearing face coverings to slow the spread of coronavirus in early April, protective masks were already hard to find. The medical-grade masks that are available should be reserved for healthcare workers, which leaves everyone else with limited options for following the updated safety guidelines. Luckily, making your own mask at home is fast, ethical, and cheap—and you don't even need to break out the sewing machine to do it.

This video, posted on Julie Eigenmann's Instagram, illustrates how to make a no-sew face mask using supplies you likely already have at home. Start by folding a square scarf or bandana four times lengthwise to create a strip that's big enough to cover the bottom half of your face. Next, pull each end of the cloth through an elastic hair tie or rubber band (one on the right end and one of the left) so that it's roughly divided into thirds. Fold the ends into the center and tuck one end into the opening of the other to hold it all together. Pull the hair ties over your ears to secure the mask to your face.

To boost your mask's filtration power, place a trimmed coffee filter or paper towel on the cloth where your mouth will go before folding it.

After wearing the mask outdoors, you'll need to disinfect it. Take it apart, throw away the disposable filter, and soak the fabric in soapy water for a few minutes. When the cloth is clean and dry, add a new filter and reassemble the mask as shown above to use it again.

DIY cloth masks are better than nothing when it comes to protecting your face from someone coughing or sneezing nearby. But no mask will make you invincible to COVID-19, and you shouldn't use one as an excuse to act any differently outdoors. Use them on necessary trips outside, like to the grocery store or your essential job, and continue keeping a safe distance from others.

Coronavirus News Digest

"See you when the pandemic's over!"
"See you when the pandemic's over!"
Blue Planet Studio/iStock via Getty Images

The constant stream of information about the novel coronvirus and COVID-19 can cause a lot of anxiety. Mental Floss created this semiweekly digest so you can peruse the news at your own pace—without feeling overwhelmed.

April 7, 2020

Almost 24 million people watched Queen Elizabeth II deliver a personal televised message about the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, April 5. The queen thanked healthcare workers and those staying at home for their continued efforts in battling the outbreak, and said this address reminded her of her very first TV broadcast in 1940, when she offered a message to children who had been sent overseas for their own safety at the beginning of World War II. "We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return," the queen said. "We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again." The queen rarely gives televised speeches apart from her annual Christmas message—this broadcast was only her fifth in her 68-year reign.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The zoo's chief vet Paul Calle tweeted that Nadia, a 4-year-old Malayan tiger, had tests confirmed at the USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratory after showing respiratory symptoms. Three other tigers exhibited the same symptoms, and zoo officials believe the big cats were exposed to the virus by an asymptomatic zoo employee. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, expects all the cats to fully recover. In a press release, the USDA said it's unlikely that your pet cat could transmit the virus to you, but if you feel sick, it's best to stay away from Fluffy as long as you have symptoms.

Oscar-winning actor and University of Texas at Austin professor Matthew McConaughey hosted bingo night (via Zoom) for a group of residents at The Enclave at Round Rock, a senior living community in a suburb of Austin. Along with his wife, mom, and kids, McConaughey called out the numbers while the quarantined seniors played along at home.

Should you be wearing a mask when you go outside? The answer is complicated, but New York City's mayor has begun urging residents to wear a fabric face covering to reduce the chance the virus could spread through breathing or talking. Recent research suggests presymptomatic people could transmit the coronavirus more easily through aerosols than previously thought.

And finally, you may have a hard time finding hand sanitizer in stores these days, but if you do, check its expiration date.

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