What Causes Asthma?
Why does anyone get any chronic condition? It is often a mystery that plagues doctors and researchers, and frustrates those who suffer from these conditions.
I know I grappled with this condition as a child, and still do when I am in the throes of an asthma exacerbation.
We do know that there are specific factors that can trigger asthma (which we will discuss in greater detail). We also know that certain risk factors seem to increase the likelihood of developing asthma – but these risk factors are not a guarantee of developing asthma.
Risk factors for developing asthma include:
- Having a genetic connection to asthma – a parent or sibling who also has asthma
- Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis or allergic rhinitis
- Being overweight or obese
- Being a smoker or having exposure to secondhand smoke
- Having exposure to exhaust fumes and pollution
- Working in certain industries that use chemicals that are harmful to the lungs, such as manufacturing, being a hairdresser, and farming
Who Gets Asthma?
Anyone can get asthma! Asthma doesn’t discriminate. That being said, as we’ve already discussed, there are certain patient populations that are much more apt to develop asthma than others.
Asthma is undoubtedly the most common chronic disease to affect children. A child’s risk of developing asthma increases if they were born with a low birth weight, are raised in a low-income home, are black, and if they are exposed to secondhand smoke. Boys are more likely to develop asthma than girls, and children who have parents with asthma are also more apt to develop asthma.
During adulthood, women are more likely than men to develop asthma.
It is estimated that almost all people living with asthma also have some allergy; over 25 percent of people with hay fever also have asthma.
We know that smoking can lead to many health conditions, and asthma is one of them. Not only can it increase the risk of developing asthma, but it also increases the risk of dying from asthma. Children who have mothers who smoke also are at greater risk of developing asthma.
Genetics seem to play a big role. We’ve already discussed the fact that having a parent or sibling with asthma seems to increase the likelihood of developing asthma. Why? Researchers have identified approximately 100 genes that are linked to the development of asthma.
According to Medical News Today, “Mom and Dad may be partially to blame for asthma since three-fifths of all asthma cases are hereditary. The Centers for Disease Control (USA) say that having a parent with asthma increases a person's risk by three to six times.”
To further complicate matters, genetics can interact with environmental factors – “exposure to the bacterial product endotoxin and having the genetic trait CD14 (single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) C-159T) have remained a well-replicated example of a gene-environment interaction that is associated with asthma.” This means that when certain genes are exposed to certain bacteria, asthma may develop.
And then we have good old hyperreactivity. Some people have hyperreactive airways, and having hyperreactive airways seems to react to allergens quickly, perhaps causing asthma.
What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?
The symptoms of asthma are pretty straight-forward (unless you have cough-variant asthma, in which your major symptom is a cough, making it more difficult to achieve a diagnosis!).
Although each person’s symptoms will vary, they are a variation of these typical symptoms:
- Tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing or wheezing – especially that is worsened with illness, such as an upper respiratory infection
- A wheezing/whistling sound that is heard with exhalation
Symptoms of an asthma exacerbation (when asthma worsens) include:
- All of the above symptoms, intensified.
- Increasing shortness of breath (although this symptom is subjective, it can also be objective – a healthcare practitioner can measure it by using a peak-flow meter, which measures how well the lungs are working).
- The use of the rescue inhaler more often.