Is Asthma Autoimmune?
Asthma affects millions of people throughout the world, with cases ranging from mild to severe. It shows no signs of slowing down either, with cases on the rise and growing theories about how changes in the environment are triggering allergies that can trigger asthma.
Any way you slice it, asthma is a big problem with a $56 billion price tag. Its increasing prevalence is a challenge for our healthcare system, and it can have a knock-on effect on mental health.
Asthma can significantly alter one’s quality of life, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression on top of the already challenged breathing.
Proper treatment of asthma is necessary to improve quality of life, and it is a condition that cannot be effectively managed without a healthcare professional’s oversight. Anyone who suspects they may have asthma should contact their physician right away.
Fortunately, there are a number of incredibly effective treatment options and medicines available to help those who have asthma, so an asthma diagnosis does not have to feel like the end of the world.
We will review some of those options later in the article, but first, we will look at the relationship between asthma and our immune system.
HOW DOES ASTHMA RELATE TO THE HUMAN IMMUNE SYSTEM?
Asthma could be considered one of the ways our bodies overreact to triggers. We are designed to respond to almost everything: intense physical activity may increase our heart rate (so could stress, nicotine, or a variety of other forces).
Chill bumps might appear on our arms when we step outside on a winter day without a coat. Tears might well up as a stray eyelash makes its way into our eye (or if a Hallmark Channel movie tugs our heartstrings). Our bodies react and respond in so many ways, and asthma is among those reactions.
Asthma is therefore considered similar to diseases caused by immune system responses (like diabetes) but is not officially classified as an autoimmune disorder or disease.
This can be incredibly confusing, but to simplify it think of it this way: while asthma produces an overactive immune response, the processes that cause it to do that are different from those that cause an autoimmune disorder or disease.
WHAT ARE AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES?
While we have clarified that asthma is not an autoimmune disease, it may be helpful to understand what it is since asthma is often mentioned in the context of autoimmune responses.
Some common autoimmune diseases include:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
Autoimmune diseases work like this:
- Something foreign invades your body
- The immune system recognizes that invasion and works to fight it off
- In what may be described as an “overzealous” approach, the immune system could actually end up attacking your healthy cells during this fight
Think of an autoimmune disease like the good guys accidentally fighting the good guys.
SO, WHAT IS ASTHMA…REALLY?
While asthma is not an autoimmune disease, it is still caused by overactive immune responses. The triggers that cause the response can be associated with allergies (which is how many people commonly think of asthma). Still, they can also be associated with triggers that are not related to allergens.
Allergic asthma, the most common type, occurs when the immune system is triggered by allergens, which could be everything from pollen to pet dander.
The allergen forces the immune system into an overreaction, and that process can cause inflammation in our lungs. The inflammation makes it difficult for us to breathe, which is when we experience asthma.
When it is caused by allergens, it can also be known as extrinsic asthma. Intrinsic or non-allergic asthma can be triggered by factors such as physical exercise, extreme temperatures, infections, or stress. This is a less common type of asthma, and it can also be the most severe.
In a nutshell, asthma (either extrinsic or intrinsic) can be easiest understood as a reaction to a reaction: in other words, our lungs become inflamed when our bodies are reacting to triggers.
That inflammation can cause difficulty breathing, ranging from mild asthma symptoms and slight shortness of breath to major asthma symptoms that may require hospitalization.
Severe asthma attacks should never be taken lightly, and you should always follow the advice and direction of your healthcare provider if you are experiencing asthma of any form.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ASTHMA….AND WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW
Because asthma affects millions of people, we do know a great deal about symptoms and treatments. Physicians have both reliable tests for asthma as well as a range of medicines and therapies to recommend.
The missing piece for many is the “why:” there are still differing schools of thought on why asthma happens and how it relates to our immune systems.
It seems to be universally accepted that the asthmatic population is growing, however. We can expect that continued efforts will be underway in terms of research to understand asthma and its causes and new advances in medicine to treat it.
LIVING WITH ASTHMA: TREATMENTS AND TIPS TO IMPROVE QUALITY OF LIFE
If you are one of the millions who suffer from asthma, you undoubtedly understand how important it is to find relief. The shortness of breath and wheezing caused by asthma can be incredibly difficult to endure.
Most physicians consider ways to both treat asthma attacks once they have happened and preventative measures that can be put in place to reduce them, and asthma patients must be mindful of ways they can reduce their exposure to those triggers.
CONTROL MEDICATIONS AND RESCUE MEDICATIONS
Some asthma medicines are designed to control or prevent symptoms, while others work quickly to help once an asthma attack has happened. Your physician will be able to determine what combination of medications will work best for you, as no two cases of asthma (and no two patients) are exactly alike.
In terms of control medications for asthma patients, those that you would take consistently on a long-term basis, the main types of effective respiratory medications are:
- Leukotriene modifiers
- Long-acting beta antagonists (LABA)
- Corticosteroids (also known as inhaled steroids)
- Combinations of LABAs and steroid inhalers
These medicines work to reduce airway inflammation and can all be incredibly effective as control medications; however, they cannot be used to “stop” an asthma attack once it is occurring.
Healthcare providers will typically emphasize the importance of this with asthma patients, so they understand these medicines will not be the first line of defense in a severe asthma attack.
Instead, these medications should be considered preventative measures that, IF taken every day, will decrease your chances of severe asthma attacks.
Rescue medications can be administered as soon as an asthma flareup occurs, and most doctors will prescribe a combination of control and rescue medications for their patients.
If you are newly diagnosed with asthma, bear in mind that it may take some time and some tinkering to come up with the combination that works best for you.
Rescue medications come in the form of inhalers, which are albuterol or levalbuterol. These can be used to help open up airways during an asthma attack, and the effects can be felt within minutes.
ASTHMA AND DIET AND EXERCISE
Another important area of research in asthma is the possible connections to diet.
It is important to bear in mind that there is no diet to “cure” asthma. As nice as it might be to think that “eating more vegetables will rid you of asthma,” there is no way to do this, no matter how many green beans you consume.
However, a nutrient-rich and healthy diet could certainly help you reduce the severity and frequency of asthma attacks. Food with anti-inflammatory properties makes sense for anyone who has asthma.
Medical researchers have also investigated links between obesity and asthma, with some indications that weight loss may also contribute to decreased severity of asthma for some patients.
Exercise, even though it can be an asthma “trigger” for some, remains incredibly important as part of your overall health. A doctor can discuss the best physical activity options with those triggered by it; the combination of control and rescue medications may enable you to take on more physical activity with ease.
REDUCING ALLERGY TRIGGERS TO CONTROL ASTHMA
Anyone with allergic asthma should take steps to eliminate or reduce exposure to allergens, which can be done by:
- Using protective bedding covers over pillows and mattresses to eliminate dust mites
- Staying indoors when the pollen count is high (and sleeping with doors and windows closed)
- Avoiding contact with pet dander and washing hands often if spending time around animals
- Taking a daily allergy medicine as directed by your physician
Even with all we still do not know and understand about asthma, we have incredibly effective ways to manage it and improve our quality of life.
By working with your healthcare provider and developing your own unique treatment plan, you can live your life fully without asthma slowing you down.
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