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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.

How Asthma Affects Your Airways continued...

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.

"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.

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