Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Asthma Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

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.

How Asthma Affects Your Airways continued...

"The surface layer acts as a kind of filter," Windom says. "But once it's gone, all of the pollutants and allergens have direct access into the lungs." So asthma can cause damage to the airways that, in turn, makes the asthma worse.

Asthma also affects the muscles that surround the airways. During an attack, these muscles tighten and further restrict the amount of air getting into the lungs.

Eventually, the constant inflammation and muscle constriction can have irreversible effects.

Norman Edelman, MD, a lung specialist and chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, compares it to arthritis. "Arthritis causes swelling," he tells WebMD. "If you don't treat it, that swelling can permanently deform the joints. Asthma works the same way."

Untreated asthma can permanently change the shape of the airways. The tissue of the bronchial tubes becomes thickened and scarred. The muscles are permanently enlarged. And a person may wind up with reduced lung function that can never be healed.

Asthma: A Surprisingly Silent Disease

Asthma is known for its obvious and noisy symptoms: wheezing, gasping, and coughing. But experts say that the typical impression of asthma is not always correct.

"Asthma can sometimes be a silent disease," says Bernstein. "People can walk around with very serious asthma, with significant blockages of their airways, and not show any symptoms."

Windom agrees. "The severity of asthma symptoms really may not reflect the severity of the underlying disease," he says. Even if you feel fine, your asthma may still be damaging your airways -- and you may be closer to a serious attack than you realize.

Even if you do have symptoms, you may not have an accurate impression of how much they affect you.

"There's no question that people with asthma tend to think they have much better control over their condition than they actually do," Edelman tells WebMD.

In a 2005 poll of over 4,500 adults with asthma in the U.S. sponsored by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, 88% said that their condition was "under control." But experts question their optimistic judgment. About 48% said that their symptoms disturbed their sleep. And 50% said that asthma has made them give up in the middle of a workout. Those are severe symptoms for people who supposedly have their condition "under control."

While many adults have trouble assessing their own asthma, it's a special problem for children. They may not remember life without symptoms.

"It's very easy for symptoms to be missed in kids," says Windom. "I see kids who don't like sports because they can't compete and get short of breath. But their parents don't realize what's going on. They assume that their children are just lazy couch potatoes, or that they just prefer computers to playing outside."

Craig agrees. "Many kids who have always had asthma don't know any better," he tells WebMD. "They think that this is just how things are supposed to be. They don't complain, so no one around them knows about their symptoms."

When Is Your Asthma Worse?

When Is Your Asthma Worse?

Take the WebMD Asthma assessment to get Personalized Action Plan

Start Now

Today on WebMD

Distressed woman
Slideshow
Woman holding an asthma inhaler
Article
 
Get Personalized Asthma Advice
Health Check
asthma overview
Slideshow
 
Los Angeles skyline in smog
Slideshow
man in a field with allergies
Slideshow
 
Black Window
Slideshow
Slideshow Allergy Myths and Facts
Slideshow
 
Man outdoors coughing
Article
Lung and bronchial tube graphic
Article
 
10 Worst Asthma Cities
Slideshow
runner
Article
 

WebMD Special Sections