Understanding asthma: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Asthma as a major non-communicable disease, affecting both children and adults


World Asthma Day (WAD) is organised on May 7 by the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA), a World Health Organisation collaborative organization founded in 1993. WAD is observed in May every year to spread awareness about asthma worldwide. For WAD 2024, the GINA has selected the theme “Asthma Education Empowers" to emphasise the need to empower asthma patients with the appropriate education to manage their disease and to be aware of when to seek medical help.

WHO defines asthma as a major non-communicable disease (NCD), affecting both children and adults, and is the most common chronic disease among children. Inflammation and narrowing of the small airways in the lungs cause asthma symptoms. Inhaled medication can control the symptoms and allow people with asthma to lead a normal, active life. Asthma is often under-diagnosed and under-treated, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. People with undertreated asthma can suffer sleep disturbances, tiredness during the day and poor concentration. If symptoms are severe, the patients may need to receive emergency healthcare and hospitalisation. In the most severe cases, asthma can even lead to death.

Causes: According to WHO, the chances of developing asthma are more if other family members, especially close relatives like parents or siblings, have got the disease. People with other allergy disorders, such as eczema and rhinitis (hay fever), are more likely to develop asthma. Events in early life, including low birth weight, prematurity, exposure to tobacco smoke and other sources of air pollution, and viral respiratory infections—affect the developing lungs and can increase the risk of asthma. Adults and children who are overweight or obese can also develop asthma.

Symptoms: Asthma symptoms can differ from person to person. Symptoms sometimes get significantly worse. This is known as an asthma attack. Symptoms are worse often during sleep or exercise. Common symptoms of asthma include a persistent cough, especially at night, wheezing when exhaling and sometimes when inhaling. Shortness of breath even when resting and chest tightness making it difficult to breathe deeply. Some people will have worse symptoms when they have a cold or during changes in the weather, according to the WHO.

Treatment: Asthma cannot be cured, but there are several treatments available. The most common one is to use an inhaler, which delivers medication directly to lungs. There are two main types of inhalers, ‘bronchodilators’ and ‘steroids’. People with asthma may need to use their inhaler every day. Their treatment will depend on the frequency of symptoms and the types of inhalers available. Using an inhaler can be difficult for children and in emergency situations. Using a spacer device makes it easier to use an aerosol inhaler. This helps the medicine to reach the lungs more easily.

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