There are a remarkable number of awe-inspiring experiences that can leave you feeling breathless very briefly.
However, an asthma attack is not among them. Can you imagine repeatedly trying to breathe in and having your lungs so tight, so blocked, that it seems like a life’s work? It’s almost as though someone were sitting on your chest. Those who suffer from asthma have this experience often.
How Your Lungs
You have two lungs in your chest cavity. The left lung is a little smaller than the right and has a notch in it to make room for your heart. The right lung is a little shorter than the left to make room for your liver.
When you breathe in, air goes down through your windpipe, or trachea, and enters the lungs through branching tubes called bronchi, whose walls are surrounded by muscle. The bronchi continue to divide into smaller and smaller tubes called bronchioles until they are so small that they can be seen only with a microscope. Eventually, each bronchiole ends in a bunch of microscopic air sacs, called alveoli,
each of which is mostly covered by a thin layer of cells containing blood vessels, aka capillaries.
It’s in those tiny alveolar cavities that the oxygen in the air you’ve just breathed in is exchanged for the carbon dioxide you are about to breathe out.
Here are some figures that indicate the size of what’s in your lungs:
1. The total surface area of your lungs is more than 1,000 square feet.
2. The lungs contain about 1,500 miles of airways.
3. There are about 700 million alveoli.
4. Laying all of the capillaries end to end would extend over 600 miles.
What is Asthma?
There are a couple of dozen things that can go wrong with your breathing apparatus, from pneumonia to bronchitis to COPD and many more. For now, I’ll focus on asthma, which affects about 25 million of us, 7 million of whom are children.
Asthma is a long-term disease in which the airways in your lungs easily become irritated, narrow because of swelling and produce extra mucus that further blocks them. Often, the muscles that surround the bronchi go into spasm, shutting off the air supply almost completely.
Asthma is one of those nobody-knows diseases. That is, there is no clear evidence as to why some people have asthma and others do not. However, most people seem to contract asthma in childhood, as did I, and many researchers believe there are both genetic and environmental factors interacting to start the asthma. These include a tendency to develop allergies, having parents with a history of asthma, having had respiratory infections in childhood or getting viral infections while your immune system was developing.
How Do You
Know If You Have Asthma?
There are symptoms that include coughing and wheezing, tightness in your chest, and shortness of breath. Not everyone with asthma has all these symptoms, and there are other diseases that may have these same symptoms. For a proper diagnosis, you really need to see your doctor, who can determine not only whether you have asthma, but also how severe it is. For some people, asthma is mostly just a nuisance. For others, it can be a perpetually life-threatening condition.
Naturally, your doctor will take a medical and family history and will do a physical exam, attending particularly to the sounds of your lungs. In addition, there will probably be some diagnostic tests, primary among which is a lung function test. This measures how much air you can take in and expel and how fast you can do it. It’s important also to know how much oxygen is getting into your blood and the strength of your breathing muscles.
Other tests may include discovering your allergies, measuring the sensitivity of your airways to various stimuli and checking to see if you have another condition with similar symptoms.
How Can You
Although some people seem to outgrow asthma, as
did I, most are never rid of it any more than you can prevent it from happening to you. Treating asthma means controlling the likelihood and severity of an asthma attack.
There is not really a do-it-yourself treatment, and you need to work cooperatively with your doctor to develop and use an asthma treatment plan. This includes discovering and avoiding anything that triggers an attack. It also includes guidance on using medications, of which there are those for long-term control and those for quick relief when an attack is coming on. And even though physical exercise may bring on some symptoms, it is very important to your general health, especially to the health of your lungs. Here again, your doctor may be able to offer advice and medications to allow you to exercise regularly.
In my practice, I have a medical massage treatment that has helped in the long-term control of asthma.
There may be times when you feel an asthma attack coming on, but your inhaler is not to be found. Here are a few things that may help.
First, sit upright if you can. It’s important to give your troubled lungs as much breathing space as possible.
Next, take long, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This will slow down your breathing to prevent hyperventilation.
Try not to panic. If you can remain calm, you prevent additional tightening of your chest muscles and make your breathing as easy as possible.
Very importantly, get away from whatever has triggered the asthma attack. It could be dust, smoke, chemicals or something else. Get into an air-conditioned spot or any place that has clean air.
Hot caffeinated drinks like coffee may help open your airways temporarily.
And, of course, seek medical help.
In addition to medications, any natural substance that is known to reduce inflammation is likely to be beneficial.
For example, warm mustard oil with camphor is a potent treatment when rubbed all over your chest. Similarly, breathing in the steam of eucalyptus in boiling water helps open airways. Figs, ginger, garlic, omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric and more are anti-inflammatory.
When to be
Checked for Asthma.
As with many other conditions, untreated asthma is likely to get worse over time and is best kept under control if it is treated as soon as possible after you notice symptoms that might suggest asthma.