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What is asthma?

Asthma might be simple to define, but…
The first question to address is “What is asthma?”
Fortunately, this is the easiest of all the asthma questions to be addressed, because the medical profession as a whole is in broad agreement as to how to define and classify asthma.
At its most basic, doctors agree that asthma is a respiratory disease that results in ‘chronic inflammation of the airways’.
People often show symptoms well before asthma develops, because asthma can start with something as simple as a common cold or cough.
Other symptoms that could potentially become asthma include sneezing, mild shortness of breath, or even something outside your lungs or respiratory tract such as a headache.
The bottom line is that it is extremely common for the initial signs of asthma to be ignored, because they appear to be nothing more than the symptoms of a common, everyday condition such as a cough or a cold.
This lack of awareness is one of the main reasons many people do not seek treatment for their asthma.
According to the Asthma Society of Canada, as many as six out of every ten Canadians who have asthma do not control their condition. This figure is expected to be similar in other developed Western nations.
Because asthma is a chronic condition, it is one that has to be dealt with throughout your life. It causes inflammation, and therefore constricts the airways that carry air in your lungs. Consequently, this restricts the passage of air from the outside world through an asthma
sufferer’s lungs, making it difficult for them to breathe.

Asthma sufferers’ airways are sensitive to many conditions, such as moist, warm or cold air, allergens, stress or physical exertion. The muscles that surround the airways react to these conditions by contracting and narrowing the airways of a person with asthma.
The problem is generally made worse by the fact that the muscles also cause excess mucus to be produced at the same time as the contraction, further blocking the airways.
However, many of the most common signs of an asthma attack can often be recognized well before the condition itself is fully developed.
Some of the signs of asthma are obvious, whereas others might not be as easily recognized and possibly the result of another medical condition. The less obvious the symptoms are, the earlier in the development cycle of asthma or the less likely that the symptoms will turn into asthma.

Less acute indicators that might fall into the ‘early warning’ category
could include any of the following:
• Frequent mood changes
• Regular bouts of sneezing
• Restlessness
• Glassy or watery eyes
• Unexplained increased tiredness
• Dry mouth
• Persistent or constant headaches
• Sleeping difficulties
• Exercise intolerance
• Dark circles under the eyes
• Pale complexion
Obviously, all of these ‘early warning’ indicators could suggest that asthma might become a problem, but they could also be the result of another serious medical condition.
Consequently, you would not necessarily assume that any of the symptoms in the previous list is a clear indicator or precursor of asthma. However, if these symptoms are ignored, the condition is likely to worsen for anyone who is at risk to develop asthma.
When the condition worsens, the symptoms become increasingly obvious. These symptoms could include:
• Wheezing, coughing and general tightness in the chest
• Shortness of breath, especially after basic exercise such as walking or climbing the stairs
• Inability to talk
• Inability to think clearly
• Drooping posture or hunched shoulders indicating that the sufferer is struggling for breath
• Obvious nasal flaring as they struggle to inhale
• Contraction in the area below the ribs and in the neck while struggling to breathe
• A grey or grey-blue tint gradually appearing on the skin, often starting around the nose and mouth area

Any of these signs would be indicative of what we would normally recognize to be an ‘asthma attack’.
Everything about asthma up to this point seems relatively straightforward because you will probably recognize the asthma ‘symptoms’ - especially if you know someone who suffers from the condition. Asthma is a surprisingly common condition and one that most of us are familiar with to some degree.