Asthma – Time to tackle a breathtaking problem

| December 14, 2012 - 11.26UTC

A new national campaign aims to help asthma sufferers across Kenya deal with this common – but terrifying – condition.

If you’ve ever felt a tightening in your chest – or, worse, watched your child gasping for breath – you’ll know that an asthma attack can be very frightening indeed. It can even kill: according to some statistics, more than 1,800 Kenyans die each year as a result of asthma. And it’s on the increase, both worldwide and in Kenya, where prevalence is around 15-20%. There’s concern within the medical community that rapidly changing lifestyles are contributing to this rise. But don’t panic – with the right diagnosis and treatment, most asthma sufferers live active, enjoyable lives. Here are the facts to help you plan your approach to the disease.

What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways in which the bronchioles (tubes carrying air into the lungs) become inflamed, narrowed and sometimes coated with excess mucous, making breathing difficult.

And the symptoms?
People with asthma suffer from:
• wheezing
• shortness of breath
• tightness in the chest
• coughing, especially at night or early in the morning

Remember that not all sufferers will experience all of these symptoms – and not necessarily all together or very often. Get an accurate diagnosis from a doctor or clinic to ensure you receive the right treatment – some asthma symptoms can indicate other conditions.

An examination may involve a lung function test to measure peak expiratory rate (the amount of air you are blowing out, assessed for your height, age and gender).

What causes it?
We don’t know exactly what causes asthma – though it tends to run in families: possibly 60% of asthma cases are hereditary. Children with eczema or other allergies are more likely to develop asthma. Not all asthma is related to allergies – sometimes exercise can provoke an attack – but many attacks are stimulated by ‘triggers’ (see below). Obesity, pregnancy and stress can also be contributing factors.

If you can find out what your triggers are, you can try to reduce your exposure to them. Sometimes the link is obvious – if symptoms start when you encounter pollen, for example. But some people have delayed reactions, so keeping an ‘asthma diary’ listing times and situations when asthma is worse can help identify the triggers.

How can you treat it?
There’s no cure, but asthma can be controlled: avoid triggers and risk factors, and take proper medications. The first step is accurate diagnosis, but it’s also important to have regular reviews with a doctor to be sure you’re managing the condition well. You may be prescribed two types of medication: a reliever inhaler for when symptoms strike and a controller inhaler for daily use. Everyone with asthma should have a written personal asthma action plan, including details of your medication regime and what to do in emergencies.

What’s being done to help?
A new campaign launched by the Ministry of Health and the Kenyan Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease aims to ensure that asthma is rapidly and appropriately diagnosed and treated. The campaign will raise awareness, improve the knowledge of  healthcare workers, and ensure that essential medicines and equipment are available at health facilities across the country.

Triggers can include:
• pollen
• poor air quality – traffic fumes and pollution
• house dust mites
• weather
• smoking and second-hand smoke
• animals – mainly those with fur or feathers
• colds and viral infections
• exercise
• perfume
• mould and fungi
• work – substances found in workplaces

Jason Dunford
The Kenyan swimmer battled asthma to become an Olympic hero…

“I was first diagnosed with asthma when I was 12, after an attack during a swim practice at Kasarani. I was on inhalers for a year but I didn’t feel my condition was severe, so I stopped taking them. It was only when I began university in the USA that my coach suggested I get evaluated by a pulmonary specialist. Tests showed that I had not grown out of my asthma, which was contributing to severe lingering coughs every time I caught a cold, as well as hampering my performance in the pool. I restarted using inhalers, which helped me manage my asthma – breathing is easier and I’m able to train much harder. My doctor was clear that leaving my condition untreated would affect my lungs’ health in later life, so I am thankful that I was properly diagnosed.”

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