How does asthma work? - Christopher E. Gaw
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Although asthma is sometimes considered a nuisance, it is important to understand that asthma has the potential to be deadly. In the lesson, we had mentioned that approximately 250,000 people die from asthma each year. In many cases, neither the asthmatic nor their family realizes that asthma can be dangerous or fatal, like in this news story. A substantial proportion of asthma-related deaths are due to under- and untreated asthma attacks or disease. However, asthma can also strike suddenly and swiftly, even in individuals with few or no symptoms. An example of this is during “thunderstorm asthma”, where a thunderstorm can precipitate an asthma attack by sweeping up and concentrating triggers such as pollen and mold spores. A recent episode
of thunderstorm asthma occurred in Australia in 2016, leading to several deaths.
A lot of asthma triggers exist which can precipitate an asthma attack or worsen baseline asthma symptoms. We had mentioned some in the lesson, but to recap and expand, they include—outdoor air pollution from factories and car exhaust, pet dander and fur, mold, pollen, dust mites and dust, tobacco smoke, cockroaches, fragrances, exercise, temperature changes, certain medications, stress or strong emotions, and certain respiratory viruses. There may be others not included on this list. To learn more about triggers and trigger prevention, check out this link from the CDC on common triggers. The CDC also has many excellent resources for different age groups and learner levels to learn more about not only triggers, but also other aspects of asthma, found here.
In the lesson, we discussed two types of inhalers—beta-agonists and corticosteroids. Managing asthma is more complicated in practice, and many different types of inhalers and oral medications exist. Some of these other medications include short versus long-term beta-agonists, leukotrienes modifiers, oral steroids, theophylline, and combination inhalers (corticosteroid plus long-acting beta-agonists). Physicians prescribe one or more of these medications based on a person’s asthma severity. For more information, the Mayo Clinic summarizes these medications here.
Asthma’s effects on the respiratory system are complex. We briefly discussed how asthma affects the airways in our lesson—for a different perspective and a more detailed explanation, check out this video from Khan Academy. Scientists are still unraveling how genes, proteins, and other molecules affect airway inflammation, smooth muscle contraction, and mucous production. The body’s immune system also plays a very important role in the development and persistence of asthma and inflammation. A discussion of these intricate relationships is beyond the scope of this lesson. However, a link to a university or medical school level resource from the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program is included here for those interested.
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