What is asthma?
In Greek, the word asthma means "to pant." The fundamental etiology of asthma remains unknown, but it is defined as "a reversible-obstructive airway disease in which the airways become narrow, resulting in laboured breathing." Various triggers 1 cause inflammation in the bronchial tubes and can lead to permanent structural changes within the bronchial wall.
Although the exact causes of asthma are not known, there is a lot of information available on how to manage the condition.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
During an asthma attack, chemical mediators such as histamine are released and the linings of the bronchial tubes become swollen and inflamed (as can be seen in the drawing at the right).
During an asthmatic attack, any or all of these symptoms may occur:
- shortness of breath or rapid breathing
- coughing or wheezing
- choking or gasping for air
- bluish nails or lips
- spitting mucous
- chest tightness
Those who have asthma usually carry an inhaler with them. They may also need immediate medical attention.
Asthma in older adults presents special problems:
- Aging can make asthma harder to diagnose and treat.
- Side effects from asthma medications may be worse than for younger people.
- High doses of inhaled steroids, given over a long period of time, may increase the risk of glaucoma.
- Asthma medications may interact with other medications, such as those for hypertension or diabetes, which may cause serious side effects.
Asthma cannot be cured, but it usually can be managed.
What causes asthma?
There is a long list, including allergens and stress. If related to a specific allergen, it is called extrinsic asthma. If it is not related to a specific allergen, it is called intrinsic asthma. Many people with asthma suffer from a combination of the two.
Some of the most common causes are:
Allergens: pollen, animal dander, certain types of foods, food additives, feathers, some medications, dusts, and moulds.
Chemical Irritants: dust, paint, deodorants, perfumes, chlorine in public pools, paint, and new carpeting.
Temperature: cold air will often trigger asthma attacks.
Psychological and Nervous Stimuli: laughing, crying, or screaming.
Exercise: Researchers speculate that asthma attacks occur during exercise because the temperature in the respiratory passage is lowered and water vapor is removed. 2
What medications are used in the treatment of asthma?
Each person is unique and will require different treatment depending on the severity and causes of the asthma.
Some of the most common prescribed medications are:
- Theophylline: Should be ingested with a light snack as it can irritate the lining of the stomach. Most common side effects are nervousness, hyperactivity, stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and headache. 3
Cromolyn Sodium: Can be used in place of Theophylline, but it is usually administered through an inhaler.
Beta-adrenergic Agents (or beta-agonists): Usually administered with inhalers and often used to prevent or control exercise-induced asthma.
Corticosteroids: Relatively new, corticosteroids and be particularly helpful for controlling severe attacks. They reduce airflow obstruction by stopping the inflammatory reaction to the allergen.
Can an asthmatic person exercise?
Generally speaking, this is possible, but exercise can be a trigger and both the person exercising and anyone with that person should be aware of the potential problems.
After several minutes of strenuous exercise, an asthma attack can occur. It is believed that the key factor in this attack is the loss of heat and water from the tissues lining the respiratory tract, as the airways work to warm and humidify the increased volume of incoming air.
Some basic principles to live by if you have asthma and you also exercise:
- The situation should be safe and well-structured.
- Warm, moist air is better than cold, dry air.
- The person should monitor themselves.
- Short, intermittent bouts of exercise are better than extended ones.
- Proper warm-up and cool-down may reduce or prevent an attack.
- Begin a program slowly and build on your success.
- Resting during the exercise session is helpful.
- Use diaphragmatic Breathing or Pursed-Lips Breathing to help gain control during laboured breathing.
Sources for this article:
- Exercise and Respiratory Disease, by Sharon Peachey Sheremeta and Gwen Hyatt
- ACE's Guide (American Council on Aging) to Exercise for the Older Adult
This article is part of a series about various health conditions and the benefits of exercise. The other articles are:
- Exercise and Allergies
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Exercise and Balance
- Exercise and Cancer
- Exercise and Chronic Pain
- Exercise and Circulation
- Exercise and COPD
- Exercise and Dementia
- Exercise and Diabetes
- Exercise and Heart Disease
- Exercise and Hypertension
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
- Exercise and Mood
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- Exercise and Our Brain
- Exercise and Pain vs. Burn: Will it ever stop hurting?
- Exercise and Parkinson's
- Exercise and Sleep
- Exercise and Stroke
- Exercise and Viruses: Exercise Immunology
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.