Nearly 26 million Americans suffer from asthma: up to 19 million adults and 7 million children. Life is difficult enough even when you’re properly equipped to tackle the daily challenges asthma presents, but going untreated is putting your health – and life – at serious risk. Even patients with a dedicated asthma specialist and treatment plan tend to under-treat their condition, leaving them vulnerable to complications. Left unchecked, asthma will cause permanent damage to the lungs and airways if not treated early and vigilantly. At worst, an unprepared asthma sufferer risks sudden death in the case of a severe asthma attack.
While the most effective treatment for asthma is daily inhaled corticosteroids, only 35% of pediatric asthma patients are prescribed this medication. Here is a look at the dangers of asthma, and why asthma sufferers require immediate and constant medical attention until a doctor confirms that the symptoms are under control.
What is Asthma?
Asthma patients suffer from chronic inflammation of the airways, which severely impairs their ability to breathe. Airflow is further impeded by excess mucus production in the lungs, in addition to constriction of the airways. These conditions lead to chronic wheezing, coughing, and breathlessness for the asthma patient, which can be greatly exacerbated when exposed to an allergen, irritant, or various environmental factors.
Two types of asthma exist: allergic, and non-allergic. Allergic asthma symptoms are triggered by exposure to an allergen, of which there are many: dust, mold, pollen, dander, etc. Non-allergic asthma symptoms can be induced by a variety of factors: exercise, respiratory illness, stress, extreme weather conditions, airborne irritants such as chemical pollution, stress, and even certain medications.
- Breathlessness or shortness of breath
- Chest tightness and constriction
- Wheezing, which sounds like a whistling in the chest
Asthma symptoms tend to rise and wane with your circadian rhythm, and are worst in the early morning hours.
An asthma attack can strike suddenly, with dire consequences. Once an attack is triggered – by environmental factors, an allergic reaction, exercise, or stress – a bronchospasm occurs, severely constricting the airways. The other symptoms are also highly aggravated: the airways become more swollen, and mucus production increases. These conditions combined make it extremely difficult for the patient to breathe, leading to potentially fatal consequences. If you suspect you or a loved one is experiencing an asthma attack, seek medical attention right away if emergency treatment is not already on hand.
Signs of an asthma attack include:
- Intense wheezing
- Chest constriction
- Severe coughing
- Skin paleness
- Blue lips
- Chest pain
Asthma attacks can span anywhere from a few minutes to several days. A milder attack may pass on its own without complication, however more severe symptoms will call for medical attention. The potential of a sudden asthma attack is why it’s imperative that asthma patients have medication on them at all times.
Irreversible Lung Damage
The cumulative effects of untreated asthma symptoms over time lead to gradual lung damage, which is irreversible once inflicted. Doctors refer to these dramatic structural changes in both the large and small airways as airway remodeling. Years of chronic inflammation lead to significant irreversible scarring and erosion of the surface layer of the lungs. The airways become permanently narrowed as a product of the combined consequences of chronic inflammation and continual scarring.
Many patients live under the misconception that their asthma is under control as long as they treat severe symptom flare-ups. However, this is only allowing the gradual lung damage to continue, little by little, everyday. Since asthma is a disease marked by chronic inflammation of the lungs, failing to treat the underlying inflammation on a daily basis only allows the damage to proliferate. Only through treating this inflammation before it presents a problem can you prevent substantial lung damage from occurring.
Financial Consequences of Untreated Asthma
Asthma that is poorly managed can result in countless unforeseen medical emergencies. This means the mounting costs of emergency room visits, in addition to missed work and school. In fact, asthma is the primary cause for pediatric hospitalization in New York City, and costs the state healthcare system $1.8 billion per year. Treating asthma symptoms before they become severe is the only way to avoid the cost and emotional stress of respiratory medical emergencies.
Signs Your Asthma Needs to be Controlled
Even if you are already receiving treatment for your asthma, it is still possible that your symptoms are not as well-managed as you may think. Here are a few indicators that your asthma symptoms need to be better managed:
- Asthma-related hospitalization in the last year
- Severe coughing which disrupts your sleep
- The need for rescue medication more than twice a month
- Difficulty breathing during exercise or basic activities
- Coughing from respiratory illness which persists for one week or longer
If you’ve experienced any of the above, you need to revisit your asthma treatment plan with your asthma specialist. If you are not strictly following your doctor’s orders, be honest about it so that he or she can advise you on the medical consequences. Remember that daily management is about preventing asthma attacks and lung damage before it’s too late.