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
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 also affects the muscles that surround the airways. During an attack,
these muscles tighten and further restrict the amount of air getting into the
Eventually, the constant inflammation and muscle constriction can have
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
"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.