What is Asthma?

Are you Gasping for Air?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 200 million people are currently living with asthma. Read on to find out more about this common condition.

Asthma is a disease that is not new and it is usually associated with children. You probably heard about it a lot when you yourself were a child or if you have children now or friends with children, you are likely to be familiar with tales of woe regarding this disease. However, in recent years, asthma is becoming more and more common in both developed and developing countries and it is believed that this is due to lifestyle and environmental factors.

Although it has been around for many years in Malaysia, awareness about asthma is not what it should be in this country. We speak to Consultant Chest Physician from Tropicana Medical Center, Dr. Mohammed Fauzi Abdul Rani about the crucial facts you need to know about asthma.


What is Asthma?

Based on the definition by the National Institute of Health – Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in the US, Dr. Mohammed Fauzi explains that asthma is a chronic long-term disease that inflames the airways and causes recurrent episodes of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing.

“Asthma is likely due to the interaction between genetic and environmental triggers,” explains Dr. Mohammed Fauzi. In other words, if asthma or atopy (a condition related to being hyperallergic) runs in your family, exposure to certain types of triggers (for example, tobacco smoke) might make your airways more reactive to substances in the air and cause asthma. However complete understanding on this is still incomplete.

“One theory for asthma development is called the hygiene hypothesis. It is believed that emphasis on hygiene and sanitation in the West has resulted in a decline in infections in early childhood. This has affected young children’s immune systems, which has led to an increase in their risk for atopy and asthma, “says Dr. Mohammed Fauzi. “This issue is seen more in children who have close family members with one or both of these conditions.”

Dr. Mohammed Fauzi shares that, “Many things can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms if you come in contact with them.” He explains that these include allergens (dust mites, animal fur, cockroaches, mold, and pollen from trees, grasses, and flowers), irritants (cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemicals or dust in the workplace, compounds in home décor products), and sprays (such as hairspray), certain medicines (aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and nonselective beta-blockers), sulfites (in foods and drinks), colds or even exercise. “The presence of a runny nose, sinus infections, reflux disease, psychological stress and sleep apnea can make asthma management difficult”


Do You Have Asthma?

There are several symptoms that doctors look out for when it comes to diagnosing asthma. According to Dr. Mohammed Fauzi, these include:

  • Wheezing – a whistle-like sound that is made when breathing.
  • Breathlessness – shortness of breath. You will get out of breath easily and you will find your ability to conduct physical activities, such as walking up the stairs, is greatly reduced.
  • Tightness in the chest – this is due to the narrowing of the airways. Hence, you may feel as if your breathing is restricted and this is because air is not entering your lungs.
  • Cough – The majority of asthma patients have a cough, and it is usually a dry cough and if phlegm is present, it will be white in colour.

If you have any of the symptoms above, it is best to consult a medical expert. “Aside from that, you should also be aware of other signs which can possibly point to an asthma attack,” says Dr. Mohammed Fauzi. “This can include an increased heart rate, an increase in your breathing rate, difficulty talking, feeling tired easily or in very severe cases, turning blue.” Asthma should not be taken lightly and should be treated immediately. If you are an asthma patient, you must be aware of these symptoms.”


How Can Asthma Be Treated?

There are two main treatment options available: using inhalers which contain inhaled corticosteroid or bronchodilators, and oral medication. “Depending on the severity of the condition, a patient can be prescribed with a combination of inhalers as well as oral medication to manage his or her asthma,” explains Dr. Mohammed Fauzi. Generally, inhalers tend to be the more popular treatment option and in the long-term, the aim of the treatment is to keep the condition under control and achieve normal lung function during normal day-to-day activities.

Do you have to be under treatment throughout your life? “Every individual is different and treatment depends on the severity of your condition. There are many asthma patients who can eventually be weaned off the treatment if their condition is under control,” assures Dr. Mohammed Fauzi. In cases like this, a doctor will allocate about three to six months as an ‘observation period’ and if the patient’s asthma symptoms improve, the dosage of the treatment can be reduced and treatment may even eventually stop.

If you’re undergoing treatment for asthma, it is important to closely follow the treatment instructions. “Many asthma patients are not compliant. As they get better, they think they do not need treatment any longer and this can cause the symptoms to quickly come back,” says Dr. Mohammed Fauzi.


What Can You Do to Manage Asthma?

“If you have asthma, you’ll need an asthma action plan which you can develop by discussing with your doctor. The plan will help you know when and how to take your medicines, and help identify your asthma triggers and manage your disease if asthma symptoms worsen,” he stresses. “This plan can even be implemented in children as young as 10-years-old.”

Most people who have asthma can successfully manage their symptoms by following their asthma action plan and going for regular checkups. However, knowing when to seek emergency medical care is important.


Can an Adult be Diagnosed with Asthma?

Dr. Mohammed Fauzi says that this is possible. Usually, the onset of asthma is seen in children. “However an adult can have an onset of asthma too, at age 50, 60 or even later in life.” Adult onset asthma may or may not be caused by allergies and only about half of older adults who have asthma, are allergic as well.


Occupational Asthma

Did you know that more than 10 percent of asthma cases in adults are associated with occupational asthma? Dr. Mohammed Fauzi explains that, working in certain environments that contain irritants for occupational asthma such as isocyanates, flour/grain, adhesives, metals, resins, colophony, fluxes, latex, animals, aldehydes and wood dust may cause you to develop symptoms similar to asthma. If you have been diagnosed with occupational asthma, you must see your employer so you can get away from the environment that caused the problem in the first place. Doing this will help your lungs to function normally again.


By Edeline Anne Goh

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