Asthma is no disease to sneeze at.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 24 million Americans are affected by asthma, a chronic disease that causes airways to become inflamed and makes it hard to breathe. It’s estimated that 10 people die from it per day.
Lt. Col. Christopher Coop, an allergist at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center Allergy Clinic, explains asthma, its triggers and symptoms, and how to control them.
“Asthma is a chronic and obstructive inflammatory disease of the airways,” said Coop, of the 59th Medical Specialty Squadron. “We say it’s chronic because you have to have symptoms for six months to a year. Patients tend to have airway issues where they cannot get air in because their bronchioles restrict or swell up and develop mucus.”
Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. They can be triggered by allergies to dogs, cats, dust mites, trees, pollen, grass and weeds, in addition to nonallergic triggers like perfume, odors and diesel exhaust.
“If you’re driving and see a big truck spew black smoke, then that could cause problems,” Coop said. “If you’re playing outside and you’re surrounded by a load of air traffic, then the bad air quality can help trigger it.”
The most common allergy symptoms can simply make people uncomfortable, like a runny nose, sneezing or an itchy rash. However, more serious reactions, like swelling in the mouth or throat, can be life-threatening. The same substances that trigger allergy symptoms, such as pollen, dust mites and pet dander, may also trigger or worsen asthma signs and symptoms. In some people, skin or food allergies can cause asthma symptoms, according to Tricare.
Sinus infections and acid influx can also induce asthma, Coop added, because both can cause swelling of the airway and make breathing difficult.
For an asthma diagnosis, patients undergo a spirometry or methacholine challenge lung function test.
Coop generally prescribes patients with mild asthma a rescue inhaler and anti-cortisone steroids for severe asthma. In addition to medication, he will also suggest allergy shots to desensitize the immune system so individuals won’t suffer from allergies to mountain cedar, oak and ragweed pollen, he said.
A severe asthma attack can lead to death, Coop said, but it is not common.
Both asthma and allergies are manageable conditions, so it is important to learn about how to best manage and treat them, according to Tricare.
“If (individuals) use their medication every day, then their asthma is kept under control,” he said.
To avoid asthma triggers, Coop recommends that people who are allergic to pets exclude them from their bedroom or remove them from their homes, and that those who are allergic to dust mites purchase dust mite mattress covers and wash their sheets in hot water.