Asthma is one of the most common chronic respiratory disorders worldwide, but the mechanisms by which asthma attacks occur can be confusing. The key components of asthma pathophysiology are irritation and inflammation in the airways, muscle contractions in the throat, and airflow obstruction caused by mucus buildup. By learning about asthma pathophysiology and triggers, a sufferer can better understand what is going on during an attack and what steps need to be taken to relieve symptoms. Most patients who use their medications correctly and follow other orders from their doctors are able to continue enjoying activity without succumbing to frequent asthma attacks.
In most cases, both genetic and environmental factors are involved in asthma pathophysiology. People with familial histories of asthma, allergies, or eczema are at an increased risk of developing symptoms early in life. The immune system of a person with asthma is hypersensitive, meaning that even the mildest airborne pathogens can induce inflammatory responses in the airways. Common triggers include pollen, pet dander, and tobacco smoke. Very cold air or heavy breathing that results from exercise is enough to irritate the throat and lead to attacks in some people.
When pathogens reach the airways, the immune system triggers the release of proteins called cytokines from white blood cells. Cytokines in turn signal mast cells in the throat to release chemicals called histamines. When histamines build up in the throat and irritate airway tissue, the result is swelling, inflammation, excess mucus production, and muscle contractions.
Swelling significantly narrows an airway, making it much more difficult to draw in a breath and exhale fully. Smooth muscle contractions in the throat compound the problem, as they make it impossible for the airway to relax and re-expand. The release of mucus in the throat further worsens the symptoms of an asthma attack. Mucus buildup leads to coughing, wheezing, runny noses, and watery eyes. The severity and length of an episode vary significantly between different people, but many people experience debilitating attacks that can last for 30 minutes or longer.
A person who has frequent or chronic breathing problems should visit his or her doctor to learn more about asthma pathophysiology and different ways to treat the condition. A physician can explain in detail why asthma occurs and help the patient identify his or her specific triggers. Avoiding environmental triggers is the most effective way of overcoming asthma, but doing so is not always possible. Inhaled medications called bronchodilators are often prescribed to combat the elements of asthma pathophysiology. The drugs work to relax muscle tissue so the airways can expand and overcome the inflammatory response.