Examining the Childhood Asthma Epidemic: Part 2

What Is Asthma?

Our lungs are made up of airways with enough tubing to cover the surface of a tennis court. The branching airways – some no thicker than a hair – end in air sacs. In a person with asthma these airways are chronically “angry and inflamed,” explains Greg Redding, M.D., North American coordinator for the International Study of Asthma and Allergy in Children and chief of pulmonary medicine at Children’s Hospital and
Regional Medical Center in Seattle. The lungs are also “twitchy and hypersensitive” to any irritation.

Many kids suffer from asthma...and their parents don't even know it!
Here are asthma symptoms to watch for.

In moderate to severe asthma, “it’s like trying to breathe through a straw,” Dr. Redding says. “Asthmatics get habituated to getting less air.”

An asthma attack occurs when “triggers” assault the airways. (See “Managing Asthma” for information on common triggers.) The lungs react to the trigger with a triple whammy. The airways swell from the inside, more mucus is produced and muscles on the outside of the air tubes constrict or spasm, as though making a fist. It’s much harder to force air through the obstructed lungs, especially to breathe out. The victim may cough or gasp for breath.

“You can’t cough mucus up through a straw,” Redding says.

People with severe asthma and multiple attacks may experience scarring, he adds. The collagen in the larger airways loses it elasticity and doesn’t stretch, further decreasing lung function.

Asthma is a chronic disease, meaning that it can be controlled but not cured. It is reversible, in that lungs can go back to a threshold level of inflammation after an attack. Although many children’s symptoms will improve as they grower older, only about 25 percent outgrow the disease, according to ALA research. Some children will see an improvement during adolescence, as airways grow bigger, but about a third of those will see symptoms return in adulthood, Redding says.


p.2 l next: p.3 - What Causes Asthma?

p.4 - Why Are Asthma Rates Rising?
p.5 - Living with Asthma