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Asthma: Help 25 Million Americans Catch Their Breath

Eileen Oldfield, Associate Editor
Published Online: Monday, April 23, 2012

Asthma cannot be cured, but medications are available to manage it, and pharmacists can help patients identify and control their symptoms.

Wheezing. Tightness in the chest. Coughing. Shortness of breath.
 
For the more than 25 million people with asthma in the United States, the symptoms of an attack can be terrifying, but there are pharmaceutical and behavioral treatments available. Welcome to the inaugural post for the Pharmacy Times Asthma Condition Center, where pharmacists can learn the latest news on investigations into and treatments for this common respiratory disease.
 
Although the condition is generally known for sudden attacks that send patients scrambling for a rescue inhaler, asthma can also manifest as long-term shortness of breath punctuated by acute episodes of increased shortness of breath. An attack can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
 
During an attack, the muscles surrounding airways tighten and the lining of air passages swells, reducing the amount of air that can pass through. Allergens such as animal hair or dander, dust, mold, pollen, and smoke; weather changes; exercise; airborne or foodborne chemicals; respiratory infections (including the common cold); and stress can all provoke attacks. In certain cases, aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause attacks as well.
 
As a result, people with asthma may have to decrease their level of exercise and participation in certain activities. They may also experience persistent coughs or sleep disruptions due to nighttime attacks. In some cases, asthma causes permanent changes in lung function and respiratory trouble that requires breathing assistance.
 
Asthma cannot be cured, but attack symptoms can be controlled. For many patients, understanding their symptoms, anticipating problems, and compensating for them is an integral part of living with the disease. Aspects of self-care may include learning to read a peak flow meter, understanding which situations are likely to trigger an asthma attack, and knowing how to respond to an attack. In addition, patients should be able to recognize the signs of an emergency, so they can seek appropriate help.
 
In addition to avoiding attack triggers, treatment options include using medications to prevent or alleviate attacks. Long-term control medications include inhaled corticosteroids (ICs), leukotriene modifiers, long-acting beta agonists (LABAs) that are taken with corticosteroids, combination inhalers, and theophyllines. Quick-relief, or “rescue,” medications include short-acting beta agonists, ipratropium, and oral and intravenous corticosteroids. Although quick-relief inhalers can be used to treat sudden attacks, patients should not rely on emergency medications for all attacks. Patients with allergy-induced asthma can also benefit from OTC allergy medicines, allergy shots, and omalizumab.
 
In some cases, medications lose effectiveness over time, which may prompt patients to use the medications more frequently. Overuse can cause adverse side effects or worsen the condition, however, so patients should be urged to contact their physician if medication effectiveness declines.
 
Make a point of visiting the Pharmacy Times Asthma Condition Center for regular updates on the latest news on managing this pervasive condition. To start, check out our other inaugural posts:
 
Higher Cost Burden for Kids’ Asthma Medications Takes Toll
 
Asthma Does Not Necessarily Mean Food Allergies
 
Heavier Children Need Higher Asthma Medication Doses

 
Treating Children’s Asthma Quickly Shortens Hospital Stay
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