Asthma is on the upswing in this country. Currently, more than 20 million adults have asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. More women are diagnosed with the disease than men. In 2003, the prevalence of asthma in women was 35 percent more than in men. More than 6 million children have asthma.
Researchers suspect that estrogen may be involved in the development of asthma in women. Why? Although adult women are more likely than men to have asthma, twice as many boys as girls have the disease. The incidence of asthma in females rises at puberty, when estrogen production surges and stays high until menopause.
The symptoms of asthma include difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, coughing and wheezing. Severe attacks may cause sweating, increased pulse rate and extreme anxiety. If breathing is so labored that the body can’t get enough oxygen, the face and lips may turn blue.
During an asthma attack, breathing is restricted by three physical changes that occur in the lungs, usually as a reaction to an allergen (a substance that can cause an allergic reaction). The most critical factor is the inflammation (swelling) of the lining of the air passages in the lungs. In addition, the cells lining the passages produce more mucus than usual, and the muscles of the airways tighten. Together, these changes make it difficult to breathe.
Allergens from dust, molds, pollen and animal dander can trigger an asthma attack. So can air pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, paint fumes, smog and smoke from a wood fire. Having a cold or a respiratory infection brings on asthma attacks in some people. Exercise, changes in weather and certain foods can do the same. Some people with asthma are sensitive to pain relievers, including aspirin and ibuprofen, or to dusts or chemicals they’re exposed to at work.
The best advice for women with asthma is to stay away from what causes their attacks. But with so many possible triggers, how do patients know what to avoid? One way to find out what’s causing asthma attacks is for the patient to keep a journal. This journal should be a record of the frequency and severity of attacks, and of how often the attacks coincide with exposure to a suspected allergen.
There are many drugs available to treat asthma. The two most common types are anti-inflammatories (used to reduce swelling in the lining of the air passages) and bronchodilators (used to relax the muscles in the air passages).
Although each of these drugs can be used to both prevent and treat asthma attacks, anti-inflammatories are most often used to prevent attacks and bronchodilators to treat attacks in progress.
A severe attack may require hospitalization. Once admitted, patients may need to be connected to a ventilator (a machine that does the work of breathing) and given drugs designed to relax the chest muscles.
For women with asthma, the path to better breathing includes a combination of lifestyle changes and compliance with a treatment plan prescribed by a physician. Ongoing communication between patient and physician helps ensure that the treatment plan remains effective.