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What Causes Asthma?

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Asthma is one of the fastest growing chronic conditions in the United States with over 15 million Americans affected, including four million children. According to U.S. News & World Report, the death rate from asthma has increased more than 66% since 1980, with a record 6,600 annual deaths attributed to asthma. Worldwide, an estimated 300 million people suffer from asthma, with 250,000 annual deaths attributed to the disease. According to the American Lung Association, both the number of cases and deaths due to asthma are surging. Cases nearly doubled from 1994 to 2009 with the biggest increase among people ages 18-44.

Americans spend $6.2 billion annually on asthma treatment and over $1 billion on medications. Adults with asthma lose over $850 million in lost wages from work and parents with asthmatic children lose over $1 billion by staying home from work to care for their children. Asthma is the #1 cause of hospitalization for children in the United States.

So you can see, asthma is both a deadly and expensive disease. So what causes asthma and why is it on the rise? An asthma attack is caused by an inflammatory response which causes constriction of the bronchial tubes in the lungs. During the attack, the lining of the airways also becomes swollen and thicker or more than normal mucus is produced. Symptoms of an asthma attack include difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing normal daily activities.

The exact cause of asthma is not known. Researchers think some genetic and environmental factors interact to cause it. These factors can include: an inherited tendency to develop allergies, certain respiratory infections during childhood, and contact with some airborne allergens or exposure to some viral infections in early childhood.

An asthma attack can be triggered by different types of irritants including dust, pollen, ragweed, aspirin, cockroaches, perfume, stress, dust mites, pet hair, food additives, and occupational vapors. Although these things may trigger an attack, they are not the primary cause of the attack. Research has shown that there are several factors that contribute to asthma, including the recent increased use of antibiotics and vaccines.

Several studies have shown that the incidence of asthma and allergies tends to rise in countries where childhood immunization rates are high. This has prompted some researchers to suggest that certain infections may trigger immune changes that protect children from developing asthma and allergies later. Preliminary studies have shown a protective effect of measles and infections with intestinal parasites.

According to Newsweek, “With the rise of vaccine and antibiotics, people in developed countries have experienced fewer serious childhood infections than ever before and scientists suspect that an immune system with no serious work to do is likely to become a renegade army, attacking whatever irritant it encounters. Research needs to continue to explore the causes and contributing factors of asthma.

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