Ways to Control Asthma, a Lung Disease

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Bob Doughty. This week we talk about the lung disease asthma.

Asthma is a serious lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. The World Health Organization says asthma affects about three hundred million people worldwide. An estimated two hundred fifty thousand people die from the disease every year. And, more than five hundred thousand are hospitalized.

Asthma happens when tissue that lines the airways to the lungs begins to expand or swell. The swelling makes the airways smaller. The muscles in the airways tighten. Cells in the airways begin to produce too much of a thick, sticky substance called mucous. The mucous causes the airways to close even more. This makes it difficult for air to flow in and out of the lungs.

This series of events is called an asthma attack. As asthma sufferers struggle to get air into their lungs, they may begin to cough a lot. They may also make a whistling or squeaky sound, called wheezing, when they breathe. Some asthma sufferers have tightness or pain in the chest. They say it feels as if someone is sitting on them. When asthma is most severe, the person may have extreme difficulty breathing. The disease can severely limit a person's activity, and even lead to death.

Doctors do not know what causes asthma. Researchers believe a combination of environmental and genetic factors may be responsible. Forty percent of children who have parents with asthma will also develop the disease. Seventy percent of people with asthma also have allergies. Allergies are abnormal reactions of the immune system in response to otherwise harmless substances.

Doctors have identified many of the things that may start, or trigger, an asthma attack. Triggers are things that cause the asthma sufferer's airways to swell. Different people are affected by different triggers. Allergens are one of the most common triggers. These impurities in the air cause allergic reactions. Some of the more common allergens include animal fur, dust, mold and pollen.

Pollen is a fine dust that comes from grass, trees and flowers. Mold is a type of fungus. It can grow on the walls and floors of homes. It is commonly found in wet or damp areas like bathrooms, kitchens and basements. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that twenty-one percent of asthma in the United States is linked to mold and dampness in homes.

Air pollution can also trigger asthma. Cigarette smoke is a major problem for asthma sufferers. So is air pollution caused by cars. Chemical sprays like air fresheners, hair spray, household cleaning products and even strong perfumes can also trigger an asthma attack.

Some people cough, wheeze or feel out of breath during or after exercise. They are said to suffer from exercise induced asthma. During the winter, breathing in cold air can trigger asthma symptoms. So can colds and other respiratory infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than twenty-two million people suffer from asthma in the United Sates. Among adults, more women have the disease than men. Asthma affects more than seven million children each year and is considered one of the leading childhood illnesses. It is more common among boys than girls.

The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases says the disease affects African Americans more than whites. African American children die from the disease at five times the rate of white children.

Special English reporter June Simms has a thirteen year old son with asthma. Arick first showed signs of the disease when he was about two years old. He had a bad cold that seemed to last longer than usual. It was very difficult for him to breathe. When his mother listened to his chest she could hear that squeaky whistling sound known as wheezing. Arick was diagnosed with asthma during an emergency visit to the doctor.

The doctor gave Arick a medicine called albuterol. Albuterol helps to relax the muscles in the airways of the lungs and increases air flow. The doctor also gave Arick a special machine called a nebulizer. It is attached to a mask that he placed over his mouth and nose. The nebulizer turned the liquid albuterol medicine into mist. Arick inhaled the mist through the mask. The treatments made it easier for him to breathe. During times when Arick's asthma was really severe, he was also given steroids to help reduce swelling in his airways.

As Arick grew older, the doctor replaced his nebulizer with a small medical device called an inhaler. He also began seeing a doctor who specializes in treating patients with asthma. This doctor said Arick was "a poor perceiver of his asthma." That means he had a hard time realizing when it was out of control. She advised his parents to use a special device called a peak flow meter. It measures the amount of air Arick is able to push out of his lungs. This can help him realize he is having a problem before he feels it.

The doctor also discovered that Arick suffers from allergies. He now takes daily medicines to help keep his asthma and allergies under control. In two thousand five, he successfully completed the American Lung Association Open Airways for Schools Program. Now Arick is considered an expert in his asthma management. It has been more than two years since he has been to a hospital emergency room because of asthma. And, he is using his inhaler a whole lot less.

Asthma has become a major health problem around the world, and a great problem for individuals, families and economies. The yearly economic cost of asthma is close to twenty billion dollars.

And, the World Health Organization says asthma rates are increasing worldwide by an average of fifty percent every ten years. The largest increase has been among children.

The Global Initiative for Asthma, or GINA, was formed in nineteen ninety-three to raise attention about the growing problem. It also seeks to improve asthma care around the world.

GINA is a joint effort between the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization. GINA released a report called "The Global Burden of Asthma" in two thousand four. It said asthma is not just a growing problem in industrial countries. It is also on the rise in developing countries.

The GINA report suggests that asthma rates in developing countries increase as they become more westernized. The report estimates that there may be an additional one hundred million people with asthma by the year two thousand twenty-five.

While asthma cannot be cured, it can be successfully controlled. This year, GINA's World Asthma Day campaign was once again called "You Can Control Your Asthma." The organization launched the campaign in two thousand seven. Its aim is to show that a large majority of asthma patients can control the disease with correct treatment. GINA says several simple steps can help people control their asthma.

People should take their asthma medicines the way their doctor says to take them. Most people need two kinds of medicines. One is a quick-acting "rescue" medicine taken when needed to stop asthma symptoms. The other is a controller medicine taken every day to prevent these symptoms.

People should know the causes of their asthma symptoms and try to avoid these triggers. For example, try to avoid animals with fur, dust, pollen from trees and flowers or cigarette smoke. Some people may need to take medicines before they work hard or exercise.

Patients should work with their doctors to control the disease. They should go to the doctor for check-ups even if they are feeling fine. They should make sure they understand how and when to take their medicines.  And they should act quickly to treat asthma attacks and know when to seek medical help.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by June Simms. Our producer was Brianna Blake. I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Bob Doughty. Archives of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.