What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic immune respiratory condition characterized by narrowing and inflammation of the lung airways (large bronchi, bronchial tubes and small bronchioles) in response to an allergen as the trigger or stimulus. As such, asthma occurs in episodes and does not result in progressive loss of pulmonary function.
During an asthma attack, airways constrict, trapping air so lungs become overinflated. Normally, bronchial airways bring air to millions of air sacs that are attached to the ends of bronchioles. Air sacs, called alveoli, are only one cell thick to allow for rapid exchange of gases.
That is, oxygen from air breathed into the sacs moves into the bloodsteam and carbon dioxide is released from the bloodstream to air that is breathed out of air sacs.
The outer walls of bronchioles are made up of muscles which, in the process of breathing, normally contract on expiration to help expel air and then relax. During an asthma attack, these muscles abnormally constrict, impairing airflow into and out of the alveoli. This is called bronchospasm.
Common allergens that cause inflammation include airborne dust mite feces, mold, and pollen and foods such as wheat, cow’s milk, eggs, and peanuts. Non-allergenic triggers include exercise, air pollution, smoking, and viral respiratory infection.
Q: What effect does inflammation have on the lungs?
A: Inflammation causes local tissue edema or swelling of the bronchioles and mucus formation. Inflammation with increased mucus secretions and edema narrows the airways that connect to alveoli which makes breathing difficult. Two things happen:
- Inflammation impairs exchange of gases in alveoli, resulting in lack of sufficient oxygen (O2) for body cell functions, called hypoxia, and build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in blood, called CO2 retention.
- Inflammation narrows passageways because of swelling, which reduces the movement of air to and from the alveoli through the airways, and this puts stress on the right side of the heart.
Treatment is aimed at controlling bronchospasm and reducing inflammation. Untreated asthma can be disabling and life threatening.
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