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Articles » ASTHMA: NWHIC


Article title: ASTHMA: NWHIC

Conditions: asthma

Source: NWHIC


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What is asthma?
Are women affected by asthma differently than men?
What can trigger an asthma attack?
How is asthma treated and controlled?
What are some common ways to avoid asthma attack triggers?
How does asthma affect pregnancy, and vice versa?
Are anti-asthmatic medications safe to take while pregnant? 

See also...

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung condition marked by labored breathing, wheezing, and/or coughing. During an asthmatic episode, bronchial tubes or airways become narrowed by the production of excess mucus, the swelling of airway linings, or the tightening of muscles around the airways. Approximately 5% of the population have asthma, but the basic cause of asthma is not yet understood. Allergies can cause airways to tighten and produce extra mucus to protect themselves from the allergies, but it is unknown why they react to such an extreme. There is no cure for asthma, although it can be effectively controlled with medication and other management strategies.

Are women affected by asthma differently than men?

From the ages of 20 to 50, women outnumber men 3 to 1 in asthma-related hospital admissions. (Interestingly, in childhood, boys outnumber girls for asthma hospital admissions.) There is evidence that asthma may be related to women's hormonal changes and may be triggered just before or during the menstrual period. (See asthma and pregnancy below.)

What can trigger an asthma attack?

People with asthma have airways that are very sensitive to certain stimuli. These stimuli or triggers can vary greatly from person to person. Asthmatic episodes or attacks may be caused by any one or any combination of the following:

  • Animal dander

  • Dust mites

  • Pollens from plants

  • Molds

  • Respiratory infections (colds, flu, etc.)

  • Exercise

  • Strong feelings or stress

  • Changes in weather or temperature

  • Cigarette smoke, scented products, strong odors, air pollution, etc.

This is not a complete list of the factors that may cause an episode of asthma, and something that causes one person to have an attack may not bother a different person. It is important to meet with your doctor to identify your asthmatic triggers so that you can develop a plan to manage your asthma and reduce your exposure to triggers. Some asthma attacks occur without any obvious triggers.

How is asthma treated and controlled?

Medication and trigger avoidance are two strategies most commonly used to control asthma. Developing medication and avoidance plans with your doctor and sticking to them are important to controlling asthma and preventing attacks.

Mild asthma may be treated with fast-acting, inhaled bronchodialators, which help open up airways to allow air to move more freely. During an acute attack, bronchodialators are used to decrease the immediate symptoms. More severe asthma may be treated with a combination of bronchodialators and anti-inflammatory medications, which help reduce the swelling of airways.

Allergen avoidance is often an effective strategy for people who have asthma strongly triggered by allergies and may reduce the amount of medication necessary to control the asthma. Anti-allergy medication and allergy desensitization shots are also options.

What are some common ways to avoid asthma attack triggers?

  • Find a new home for your pet or wash the animal once a week (animal dander).

  • Do not smoke and do not allow smoking in your home (tobacco smoke).

  • Stay indoors and in air-conditioning during the afternoon in the summer when pollen counts are highest (pollen).

  • Wear a scarf over you mouth and nose in the winter (weather/temperature).

  • Wash all bedding, clothes, and stuffed toys at least once a week in hot water (dust mites).

  • Use a dehumidifier in damp areas like bathrooms and basements (dust mites and molds).

  • Avoid close contact with people who have colds or the flu and wash your hands regularly Consider obtaining a yearly flu vaccination (infections).

  • Develop a medication plan with your doctor that allows you to stay active (exercise).

  • Pay close attention to times and locations when symptoms occur (identifying triggers).

How does asthma affect pregnancy, and vice versa?

Most women who have asthma are able to have safe and normal pregnancies as long as their asthma is effectively under control. It is extremely important for women to control their asthma while pregnant because asthma causes a decrease in the oxygen in the blood and can affect the amount of oxygen the fetus receives.

The severity of asthma may change for women during pregnancy. In general, symptoms in pregnant women with asthma seem to improve in one-third of cases, stay the same in one-third, and worsen in one-third of cases.

Are anti-asthmatic medications safe to take while pregnant?

The risks of uncontrolled asthma seem to be more harmful than the risks of asthma medications. Controlled asthma is essential for the good health of the mother and the baby. Many anti-asthmatic medications are considered safe for use during pregnancy. Inhaled medications are generally preferred over oral medications because those that are inhaled have a more localized effect in the lungs and are less likely to be passed on to the baby. However, oral medications may be necessary to control the symptoms. Your allergist can work directly with your obstetrician to develop a treatment and asthma control plan.

Tracy Zitzelberger and Dr. Amy Pope-Harman The Ohio State University Medical Center National Center of Excellence in Women's Health

For More Information...

You can find out more about asthma by contacting the following organizations:

American College of Allergy, Asthma, Immunology

National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (NHLBI)

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Contributing to this FAQ on Asthma: The Ohio State University Medical Center, a National Center of Excellence in Women's Health, sponsored by the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services

All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the source is appreciated.

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Publication date: 1998



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