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Asthma & its symptoms: including a plan diagram of a bronchiole.

Updated on June 26, 2014

Asthma kills people.

Despite the unprecedented developments made in medicine in the 20th and 21st century there are still many terrifying diseases and illnesses yet to be conquered. One of the most mysterious of these is asthma and despite constant research it still kills 1 person every 8 hours in the UK alone. In 2009 in the UK this translated to 1,131 deaths, 12 of which were children below the age of 14. What is even more tragic is the fact that 90% of these deaths were preventable.

Of course most asthmatics manage this condition with medication but many still live with the ever-present fact that they could die from their disorder. Management is no substitute for a cure but despite the on-going research a cure still seems a long way off.

The basic statistics of childhood asthma.

The UK has, to our mystification, one of the highest rate of childhood asthma in the world. Starting in infancy and lasting a lifetime for many, is it estimated that 1 in 11 children (1.1 million) suffer from the condition. On average this means that there could be 2 asthmatics in every UK classroom.

A child is admitted to hospital with asthma every 17 minutes despite the fact that many of these admissions are unnecessary. Parents, understandably, are unwilling to take risks with their children's health and an asthma attack can be an extremely frightening event, either to have to endure or to witness.

The symptoms of an asthma attack.

Many people think they know what happens when an asthma attack happens. The sufferer can't breathe in ... right? The truth is more complex. It would appear that once the body's defence mechanism kicks in the sufferer is actually unable to breathe out.

When an asthmatic comes in contact with their particular allergen, or allergens, a reaction is triggered. Once the allergen has entered the bronchial tree (see Diagram 1 below) the body mounts an aggressive response to the perceived 'invader' and the over-sensitive airways start to close up. The body's antibodies rush to destroy these foreign elements and actually cause mayhem in the bronchial tubes of the sufferer.

The release of powerful chemicals such as histamine causes the smooth muscle of the bronchioles to constrict and go into spasm. At the same time the inner lining swells up and excretes extra mucus in an effort to dilute and weaken the allergen (see Diagram 2 below) which further constricts the airways. The usual asthmatic symptoms of wheezing, coughing and tight, laboured breathing then become apparent. Sometimes the victim experiences all three at once and this is encourages the most dangerous symptom of all ... fear.

As asthma has variously been described as suffocation, strangulation and like being buried alive it is easy to see why the asthmatic becomes panicky and fearful during an attack. This is the most dangerous time for them as it is vital they try to remain calm until they can obtain medication or are hospitalised. The best scenario, if at all possible, is to treat their attack as early as possible as then the symptoms may be either alleviated or allayed altogether. As well as the danger of panic a full-blown attack can leave them weakened with the effort to breathe and the lack of oxygenated blood circulating around their body.

Diagram 1: The bronchial tree
Diagram 1: The bronchial tree | Source
Diagram 2: The physiological difference of the bronchial tubes during an asthma attack.
Diagram 2: The physiological difference of the bronchial tubes during an asthma attack. | Source
Air pollution in a major city ...
Air pollution in a major city ... | Source
Children deserve a healthy future.
Children deserve a healthy future. | Source

The causes of Asthma and their effect on children.

Unfortunately there are many triggers for asthma, ranging from the usual suspects like pollen, dust mites and pet allergens to tobacco smoke, household moulds and mildew and outdoor pollution. What is often not clear is exactly which allergen, or combination of allergens, triggers a particular reaction in any given sufferer. Some sufferers have just one allergen but others may have several which trigger their asthma. It is a very individual condition and no two asthmatics may have the same triggers. Once the specific allergens have been identified it is obviously much easier to avoid them and control the onset of an attack though it can often take some time to correctly identify which allergens are the guilty parties.

Pollution and asthma.

It is now believed that for for more and more of our children the initial triggering factor is pollution, from cigarette smoke in the household to emissions from motor vehicles. This last is under almost constant scientific investigation as the link has been proven beyond doubt. So could we be to blame? Could our love affair with our shiny automobiles and 4 x 4's be putting our children at risk?

Understandably, the risks for urban children are greater, particularly in summer. The combination of the carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates (PM10's) given out in vehicle exhaust fumes combine with sunshine to produce a low-level (tropospheric) ozone which induces asthma attacks.

In the past statistics have shown that urban children being pushed in buggies or walking alongside busy roads during the summer can significantly raise the number of them being admitted to hospital with respiratory problems. This was particularly evident in the hot summer of 1994 in London when hospitals ran out of medication as admission numbers reached epidemic proportions. One doctor was quoted as saying that it was 'the equivalent of having an air crash near every hospital'.

Of particular concern are the PM10's which are believed to be the most dangerous component of this chemical cocktail and some scientists believe there are no safe levels of these. As these particulates are less than 10 microns in diameter they are small enough to enter the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. Once there they adhere to the alveoli and it has been estimated that they carry up to 80 different chemicals on their surface; 80 different chemicals that have no business being in any child's lungs.

Tropospheric ozone is now believed to be not just implicated in asthma attacks but may in fact be a primary cause of the initial onset of asthma in many children as it damages the delicate linings of the airways leaving them sensitised to all sort of other irritants such as pollen and animal hair.

The good news ...

Despite all of these facts seeming depressingly doom-laden it must be stated that on balance most children have only mild asthma symptoms and often grow out of it altogether, almost as if the extreme sensitivity reaction re-sets itself in some way as they mature. But for those who don't we need to be aware that we take care not to subject our children to too many reaction factors without circumventing their lives too much.

As research continues it may be that new drugs are developed to better control allergic reactions and as new fuels are also developed it could be that vehicles will eventually run on something less destructive to both our children and their environment. But in the meantime perhaps we should use our cars less ... and walk our children to school away from the traffic jams.


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    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks for pointing that out, Pamela ... child obesity ... well, the whole growing problem of obesity ... is another concern of mine. The food industry has a lot to answer for ... as well as uninformed parents.

      Hopefully your nephew's asthma will clear when he gets to puberty. For a lot of children dairy products are the problem. Mums ply them with milk etc. thinking they are doing the right thing for growth but it encourages the formation of too much mucus in the body.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 

      8 years ago from Oklahoma

      Another thing that causes asthma is obesity. I think part of the reason we have more kids with asthma today is due to so many being overweight. I have a nephew who is asthmatic and if he were to lose a lot of weight he wouldn't have it all. He was fine when he was little and didn't have all that excess fat.

      It is a scary condition and hopefully they can find a cure.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks for your input on this hub, Alexander. I don't suffer from asthma either, for which I give thanks to the Universe, but then I have always lived in the depths of the countryside so who knows?

      It is extremely unlikely that there is any sort of record of asthma attacks before the industrial revolution as this started in the 1700's in the UK and the country-dwellers who migrated to the towns in search of 'a better life' worked, starved and died of poverty, overwork and disease in their thousands. The name of the game was profit for the factory owners and, but for a few of a philanthropic nature, most of them cared nothing for their workers. They were easily replaced, there was little need of records.

      Thank goodness we have moved on, eh?

    • Alexander Mark profile image

      Alexander Silvius 

      8 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      I have to agree that we need to slow down the use of technology and use it more sensibly. The correlations between increased ozone and heat make a lot of sense to me, during the summer here, there are cloudbanks of pollution haze obscuring metropolitan skylines, and although I never researched the numbers as you so expertly have done, it makes sense there is a connection between pollution and asthma. In my high school, there were always cases of asthma - maybe one in every twenty or thirty students - it was prevalent in any case. I lived in a city of around 50K people though, so it is difficult to use that as an example except maybe generally.

      Is there any research that can indicate the number of treated and untreated asthma attacks before our industrial revolutions took place? My feeling is that it was probably a lot less. Your numbers are telling enough though.

      This is one of many reasons I plan to move far out into the countryside when I save up enough for a piece of land. I don't suffer from this affliction, thank God.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Hyphenbird ... many thanks for your input here.

      My son had croup a couple of times as a child and I was scared witless. That was as near as I got to having a child with an inability to breathe and frankly, I would have done anything to prevent it. I think he just grew out of it as he got bigger. So, I can understand a little of what you must have gone through with your boy.

      I am so glad your son is now well and I hope that he continues in good health for the rest of his life.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      8 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Hi Angie. My son almost died several times from asthma as an infant and toddler. He carried much fluid in his lungs because he was unable to breathe properly. He was on breathing treatments and preventatives every four hours around the clock. I got up at night to administer treatments and the teachers at daycare were vigilant at giving them. this went on for several years. Still the asthma was not controlled. He was prescribed a medicine as a last hope. One of the side effects was an INCREASED RISK OF DEATH FROM AN ASTHMA ATTACK. How frightening is that?

      This may sound odd and weird to many people. But we turned to God and claimed His divine healing. My son has been off all medicines for almost four years now. He is almost nine now and in perfect health.

      Thank you for your excellent article on this scary subject.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Sly ... glad you found it useful.

      As you know asthma and its multiple causes is a wide ranging issue so I think my hub is somewhat superficial. The bottom line is that every sufferer is different and so is their asthma. Only careful research by the sufferer and their doctor will discover a regime that suits them and safely controls their asthma

      Many thanks for stopping by to comment.

    • SlyMJ profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks, Angie. Asthma runs in my family, and I found this very informative

    • WillStarr profile image


      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      "Maybe your left wing president is on to something ..."

      That would be a first! The CFC propellants are harmless:

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Just found this, Will, from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency:

      'Chlorofluorocarbons enter the body primarily by inhalation of air containing chlorofluorocabons, but can also enter by ingestion of contaminated water, or by dermal contact with chlorofluorocarbons. Inhalation of high levels of chlorofluorocarbons can affect the lungs, central nervous system, heart, liver and kidneys. Symptoms of exposure to chlorofluorocarbons can include drowsiness, slurred speech, disorientation, tingling sensations and weakness in the limbs. Exposure to extremely high levels of chlorofluorocarbons can result in death. Ingestion of chlorofluorocarbons can lead to nausea, irritation of the digestive tract and diarrhoea. Dermal contact with chlorofluorocarbons can cause skin irritation and dermatitis'.

      Maybe your left wing president is on to something ... it wouldn't be the first time the drug companies have got things wrong.

      I'm just amazed they have to use CFC's as propellants in this day and age. I know it is only is small doses but it makes one wonder what the build-up might do over time.

    • WillStarr profile image


      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Those who used over the counter inhalers will now have to visit a doctor and get a prescription for an inhaler.

      Brilliant move by our far left president.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Will ... I wonder what CFC's do to the human body? Just a thought ...

      Hopefully your son has something else to rely on, bless him ... I do wish there was something other than drugs that would help ... it is a modern age disease, it really is.

      Thanks for commenting ... I really like to hear from you.

    • WillStarr profile image


      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      My oldest son is asthmatic, and depends on his over the counter Primatene Mist inhaler. The idiot Obama administration has decided to ban such inhalers because they release a tiny amount of CFC's when used!

      These morons think that such inhalers will damage the ozone layer.

      God help us all!


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