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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.

The Importance of Early Asthma Treatment

Doctors used to have a more relaxed attitude to treating asthma, but experts now agree that it's crucial to get treatment as soon as possible.

"I think just about anyone who treats asthma will tell you that aggressive treatment is the way to go," says Edelman. "It really works."

There are two basic types of medicines. Quick-relief medications, usually in the form of inhalers, swiftly reduce the muscle tightness around the airways, allowing you to breathe easier. You would use a quick-relief medicine during an asthma attack.

Long-term control medicines either calm inflammation or help prevent the airways from closing. They are used daily - not just when you have an asthma attack -- because they work slowly. They prevent rather than treat symptoms, so they're not much help once you are already having an attack.

Inhaled long-term control medicines are usually preferred, but some long-term medicines are also available as pills.

The other important treatment hinges on your own behavior: You need to stay away from the allergens or irritants that trigger your asthma.

By following this treatment approach, the majority of people with asthma can control their symptoms. They can live normal, healthy lives.

Untreated Asthma Leads to Avoidable Suffering

If asthma is so treatable, why do 5,000 people in the U.S. die from it every year? Why are 70,000 people hospitalized for asthma every year?

The simple answer is that while good asthma treatments are available, many people aren't using them. Not taking your medicine can have serious consequences. "We think that poor or irregular asthma treatment puts people at greater risk of more serious or irreversible damage," says Windom.

Part of the fault lies with doctors, Windom tells WebMD. He says that many doctors don't monitor their asthma patients well enough. Too often, he says, they treat the condition based only on the patient's impression of his or her health, which is often incorrect. He believes that doctors should pay more attention to objective analyses, like breathing tests with peak flow meters.

"Going by a patient's impression -- instead of getting objective measures -- would never be accepted for treating other chronic conditions, like diabetes," Windom says.

But a large part of the problem is that people with asthma are not following their doctor's recommendations. Many only treat the flare-ups of asthma and don't think of it as a chronic disease.

"We have data that shows that people tend to use their long-term asthma treatment for two to three months at a time," says Windom. "But by then they feel better, and they never get the prescription refilled. The pharmacy records show it."

In fact, one survey conducted by the CDC in 2001 found that less than half of people with asthma said that they had a routine check-up with a doctor in the previous year.

Craig says that some patients go through a regular cycle. "It's very common for people to have a scare, like a trip to the ER, and then become diligent with their asthma treatment for a few months," he tells WebMD. "But then their diligence wanes and they stop taking their medication." Gradually, their condition gets worse until they have a crisis. Then the cycle repeats.

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