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Treating Asthma: Preventing Damage to the Airways

Asthma can cause permanent damage to your lungs if not treated early and well. Here's why - and what you can do.
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Is your asthma under control? If you're like most people, you probably think it is. You feel OK most of the time, so you usually don't need medicine. When your asthma flares up, a puff from your trusty emergency inhaler solves the problem -- most of the time, at least.

But experts say that if you have persistent asthma and you're only treating it during attacks, you're not controlling it at all. Anyone who has asthma symptoms more than twice a week during the daytime, or more than two nights a month, should talk to their doctors about preventive treatment.

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Diagnosing Asthma

Has your doctor diagnosed you with asthma? Getting a proper asthma diagnosis is the first step to self-managing this chronic lung disease. After diagnosing your asthma, the doctor can prescribe the most effective and safest asthma medications to treat your asthma symptoms so you can live an active and productive life.

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"A lot of people have this attitude that they don't need to worry about their asthma unless they're having an attack," says Timothy Craig, DO, professor of medicine and pediatrics at Penn State University. "The rest of the time, they ignore it."

Asthma: An Ever-Present Disease

Asthma is a chronic, incurable disease. Even when you feel well, your asthma hasn't gone away. Even if you can't feel it, your airways might still be inflamed. Treating persistent asthma with only occasional puffs from a rescue inhaler is like dealing with a leaky pipe in your basement by mopping up the water on the floor. You're only thinking about the symptom and not treating the underlying cause. Over time, if asthma isn't well controlled it can damage your airways permanently.

Yet while damage to the airways may be irreversible, it is not inevitable. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to prevent serious damage from ever developing.

"When asthma gets correctly diagnosed and treated, most people do very well with the conventional medications we have available," says allergist Jonathan A. Bernstein, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

There may not be a cure for asthma, but by sticking to the right treatment -- avoiding triggers and taking your medicine -- you can regain control and live a full and normal life.

How Asthma Affects Your Airways

Asthma is a complicated disease, and doctors don't completely understand its causes. But it has two main components: inflammation and muscle constriction.

Asthma affects the airways, the bronchial tubes that carry air into the lungs. In people with asthma, the lining of these airways becomes inflamed. No one is sure why this first develops. But certain allergy triggers (like pollen or pet dander) or irritants (like perfumes or cigarette smoke) begin to trigger this swelling.

If you take long-term control medicines -- like inhaled corticosteroids -- you can reduce this swelling and keep the airways healthy. But if your asthma goes untreated, problems develop. Over time, this constant inflammation can destroy the surface layer of the airways, says Hugh H. Windom, MD, associate clinical professor of immunology at the University of South Florida.

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