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America's Secret Disease

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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

America's Secret Disease

Brenda Zera

America has a serious health problem - one that usually escapes the notice of most people. Over 15 million Americans are affected by asthma (10 million adults and 5 million children). (3) This chronic respiratory disease can even be life threatening, if not kept in careful check. So, what exactly is asthma and why do so few people seem to know about it?

While asthma is chronic (meaning that it is always with you), its symptoms are not always detectable. Sometimes these symptoms are dormant, waiting for the right irritant to trigger them. Symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and a "tight" feeling in the chest region. (5) Coughing can either be a dry cough or a wet cough (phlegm comes up the esophagus during rough coughing). The three main components of asthma are: inflammation, muscular contraction and increased mucus production. While these symptoms are usually under control, if they should be aggravated, the person may be in danger of suffocating. (1) <

During a severe bought of asthma (commonly known as an asthma attack, or episode) the lining of a person's bronchiole becomes inflamed. The inflammation causes a build up of fluid and cell-clots – this swells the tissue and contributes to the blockage. The muscles around the bronchiole involuntarily constrict, causing a further decrease in bronchiole diameter. In addition to all this, an increase in the production of mucus floods the lungs. (1) If the person cannot clear their airways, they can die either of asphyxiation, or of carbon dioxide poisoning (sometimes, fresh O2 is allowed into the system, but CO2 cannot escape causing a massive build up of carbon-dioxide in the system). Persons with asthma have a decreased lung-capacity, which makes everyday breathing hard (my father, for instance, only has 50% of his lung capacity – before my maternal grandfather died, he only had 27% capacity [he also had emphysema]).

In 1999, more than 4, 500 people died of asthma or asthma-related conditions. Between 400, 000 and 500, 000 people are hospitalized each year because of asthma. (3) This makes asthma the third ranked cause of hospitalization for children under the age of fifteen. (3) Approximately one in every thirteen school-age children has asthma. (4) Children are most susceptible to asthma because they breathe more air, eat more food and drink more liquid in proportion to their body size than an adult does. As their bodies are still developing, this leaves them more vulnerable to environmental exposures and diseases than adults. (1)

Although children are more likely to develop asthma, there are many different types that adults can have. The form of asthma that is least well recognized for what it is, is exercise-induced asthma. (1) While most people think that it is normal after exercising to breathe heavily, it is not normal to wheeze or cough either during or immediately after exercising. So, while some people may not exhibit signs of asthma every day, it may still be present. Jogging in cool/cold weather sometimes causes bronchiospasms. In general, cool/cold air is bad for persons with asthma, while warm/moist air is beneficial and can help relieve symptoms. People with asthma who still wish to exercise are recommended swimming, as the slow, rhythmic breathing is good for your respiratory system. (1)

Other than air temperature, there are many things that can trigger asthma. To start with, many asthmatics are also allergic to many substances. Many asthma attacks are caused by allergic reactions. That is why the two most common triggers for asthma are allergies and irritants. Outdoor environmental irritants are such things as cold air, cigarette smoke, commercial chemicals, perfume, as well as paint or gasoline fumes. Indoor environmental irritants can include; second hand smoke, cockroaches, dust mites, molds and pets with fur or feathers. As Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, it is important to keep residences and work places as clean as possible. (4)
For the outdoors, studies have shown that air pollution is causing the number of people worldwide with asthma to rise significantly. The groups of people who are affected the most are inner-city residents or persons living in a highly industrial area. Air pollution is a prime factor in asthma related illnesses and deaths.

While taking medications (like albuterol sulfate solution, chromoline sodium solution, albuterol inhalers, or various other bronchio-dilators or pills) can help reduce asthmatic symptoms, asthma has no known cure (although they are considering gene-therapy a possible treatment). (5) People living in low-income areas have no hope of purchasing the prescription drugs needs to fight asthma, so their rate of respiratory problems is the highest of any demographic group.

More than half of all asthma patients spend 18% or more of their total family income on asthma-related expenses. Over $4 billion per year is spent on the hospitalization of asthma patients. (1) Many of my asthmatic friends have been hospitalized more than once and my older brother was hospitalized for his asthma when he was a child.

Although it is not possible to cure asthma at this time, with a habitual use of medication, it is possible to send the asthma into remission. This is what happens with many children. They appear to "grow-out" of their asthma, but in reality, it is only lying dormant inside them.
Many people are affected by asthma and do not even know it. Although it is not a prolific killer, if untreated, asthma can kill. Most people that live in cities should pay attention to the air quality reports for their neighborhood. Persons living in a high pollution area are more susceptible than others are. (4) Certified doctors or allergists can run a simple test to determine your lung capacity.

As asthma affects a large portion of our population, it is surprising the reaction that asthmatic people receive. They are often ridiculed for not being able to "keep-up" with others (this happens especially to children during recess or play-time). While this is a common respiratory disease, some people still find it hard not to look down upon people who use inhalers or nebulizers as being "weak". This creates an entire series of social groupings. Who would have thought that such a common, yet unknown disease could cause so much physical and mental harm?


1)Sniffles & Sneezes: Allergy & Asthma care and prevention, a site dedicated to treating allergies and asthma.

2)Allergy Asthma Technology, Ltd. , a pharmaceutical website.

3)Center for Disease Control, their website about asthma – great links.

4)Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA's website about the causes of asthma.

5)American Lung Association, ALA's comprehensive webpage of asthma and a series of links.



Comments made prior to 2007
I was very interested to read your informative article on asthma and its effects. Howvere, nowhere was it staed that some chronic asthmatics have found relief from using the Buteyko Breathing Method and being able to reduce their use of asthma medication. Has Serendip examined this method of dealing with asthma? ... Clive Monty, 12 April 2007