You may think of asthma as a childhood illness, not one that's much of a problem for adults. Yet approximately 7 percent of American adults and about 9 percent of children have asthma. It accounts for 1.7 million hospital emergency department admissions every year.
Asthma isn't always serious enough to require hospitalization, of course. It may cause only occasional and short-lived symptoms, such as breathlessness, coughing, or wheezing. But unless your asthma is well-controlled, it subtly interferes with normal activity and may get out of hand quickly.
Asthma occurs when the main air passages in the lungs, called bronchioles, become inflamed and overly sensitive to "triggers." During attacks, the lungs produce extra mucus and the bronchiole walls narrow, making breathing difficult.
No cure exists yet, but nearly everyone can dramatically reduce—and maybe even eliminate—symptoms. Even if you currently use medications to treat your asthma, you may be able to reduce the dose or frequency more than 50 percent by practicing good lifestyle control, says Thomas F. Plaut, M.D.
The symptoms of asthma are often subtle at first, but they can get much worse in a hurry. Any changes in your usual breathing patterns need to be checked by a doctor.
If you're already being treated for asthma, see your doctor if you're needing the asthma medication more frequently. In addition, if your wheeze, cough, or shortness of breath gets worse even after the medicine has been given time to work, you need to call your doctor. Anytime you have an attack, it means the asthma isn't as well-controlled as it should be.
Kendall Gerdes, M.D., is director of Environmental Medicine Associates in Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Elson Haas, M.D., is the director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin, an integrated health-care facility in San Rafael, California, and author of seven books on health and nutrition, including The False Fat Diet and Staying Healthy with Nutrition.
Thomas F. Plaut, M.D., is director of Asthma Consultants in Amherst, Massachusetts, president of Pedipress Asthma Publications, and author of Dr. Tom Plaut's Asthma Guide for People of All Ages and One-Minute Asthma.