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 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.
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
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