The Effect of Asthma on Long-Term Health

What Happens To My Body In The Long Term?

Long Term Asthma Complications
Long Term Health Effects Of Asthma. Martin Barraud/OJO Images/Getty Images

Asthma is a chronic illness, meaning that it's never completely cured, and you need to be knowledgeable of the potential long-term consequences. However, there are steps you can take to control asthma symptoms and limit the long-term effects of this condition. While asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed. When you successfully manage asthma you are much less likely to develop or suffer from permanent, long-term consequences.

In this article, you will learn about the long-term effects of asthma, in addition to some tips to help prevent these complications.

First, it's important to define asthma as a condition that consists of three major symptoms:

  • Increased mucus produced in the lungs
  • Tightening of muscles that surround the small airways
  • Swelling of the small airways

Each of these components can affect your long-term health in different ways.

Why do asthmatics cough up more mucus?

Cells in the lungs release chemicals (mediators known as cytokines) that lead to higher levels of mucous in the airway. The mucous can become lodged in the airway, contributing to the wheeze and cough that you feel when you have an asthma attack or develop asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness, or  wheezing.

From a long-term perspective, this mucous can increase the chance that an infection like pneumonia may arise.

Repeated infections can lead to complications including antibiotic resistance, in addition to scarring of the lungs themselves. Such scarring is irreversible and may lead to permanent lung damage.

In order to prevent the accumulation of mucous, it's important that you try to prevent asthma attacks, which can best be accomplished through the use of controller medications and avoidance of triggers such as dust mites, pollen, and tobacco smoke.

These medications help prevent asthma attacks by controlling inflammation and decreasing mucous production. Some examples include inhalers like Advair, Symbicort, and Flovent. Without the increased mucous, you can decrease the chance of pneumonia or bronchitis. Talk to your allergist or primary care doctor about your asthma, and discuss the potential use of a controller medication to prevent long-term damage.

If you have symptoms more than two days per week, use your rescue inhaler more than two times per week, or wake up at night three times per month, your asthma is poorly controlled and you will likely either need a controller medication or an increased dose of your current meds.

Why does asthma cause chest tightness and wheezing?

This tightening of muscles around the airways is known in medical terms as bronchospasm. When this process is chronic, it can lead to a decrease in exercise tolerance, which over time can lead to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions that are associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

If you suffer from exercise-induced asthma, this process is easily well-controlled. When you suffer from this type of asthma and use your albuterol inhaler 10-15 minutes before exercise — or during exercise, if needed. This usually takes care of your symptoms but  does not necessarily mean that you will become a faster runner. Other medications like Singulair or inhaled steroids can help you if the albuterol fails to control your symptoms adequately. Your asthma should never get in the way of healthy exercise, and you should discuss any exercise-related asthma concerns with your allergist. Your goal is to have asthma not impact your life and not prevent you from taking part in the activities that you want to.

What is the biggest concern about uncontrolled asthma?

Although the increased mucous and muscle tightening are troublesome, chronic swelling of the airways is the most dangerous long-term effect of asthma. A process known as airway remodeling can occur over many years, leading to eventual scarring of the lungs. This process results from the chronic and uncontrolled inflammation that can occur over time. If you fail to get good control over your asthma the end result can be similar to COPD after many years.

In these cases, as with lung infections, the normal tissue of the lungs is replaced with scar tissue. Scar tissue does not work like normal lungs do, leaving patients with severe lung damage in some cases. Over many years some of these patients experience significant disability as a result.

As with the increased mucous production, in the case of airway remodeling, achieving good asthma control is the best way to prevent long-term complications. This means having rescue medications available when necessary, in addition to your asthma controller medication. Proper use of asthma medications should allow you to live an active healthy lifestyle, with few asthma-related symptoms.

What Can I Do?

First, you need to see your doctor and develop an asthma action plan. The plan is your road map to good asthma control. It tells you what you need to be doing every day as well as what you need to do when you develop symptoms. The plan may change over time, so you need to review it with your doctor regularly. You also need to make sure that you have identified your asthma triggers. The plan tells you when and at what doses of your medication that you need to be taking. If you do not take your medication as directed it is difficult to have a good plan. Finally, part of your plan is monitoring symptoms. When you monitor your symptoms you can then look at your action plan and see what steps need to be taken.

Sources:

Jack A. Elias, Zhou Zhu, Geoffrey Chupp, et al. Airway Remodeling in Asthma. J Clin Invest. 1999 October 15; 104(8): 1001–1006.

Thomas AE Platts-Mills, MD, Ph.D. Asthma Severity and Prevalence: An Ongoing Interaction between Exposure, Hygiene, and Lifestyle. PLoS Med. 2005 February; 2(2): e34.

What is Asthma? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Accessed July 11, 2016. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/asthma/

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