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Asthma Now Afflicts 15 Million Americans

But advances in medication make it an easily controlled disease

FRIDAY, May 2, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- You begin to take a breath, and find your chest has inexplicably tightened. Wheezing and coughing, you struggle to take in air.

Your airways have become blocked or narrowed. The small tubes that carry air through your lungs, the bronchi and bronchioles, have suddenly become inflamed. They are suffering a double assault -- constricted by tightened muscles outside and flooded by mucus inside.

You're suffering an attack of asthma, a disease that now affects some 15 million Americans.

Asthma cases have doubled over the past 15 years, with more and more people worrying whether their next breath will come easy.

May is Asthma Awareness Month, a time when doctors and activists hope to spread more information about the disease.

Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens, tobacco smoke or exercise -- particularly when exercising in cold air.

If an attack is serious enough and left untreated, it can be fatal.

The U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services says low-income and minority groups are more likely to die during an asthma attack, probably due to lack of access to proper medication. There was an average of 38.5 asthma-related deaths per 1 million blacks from 1993 to 1995, compared with 15.1 deaths per 1 million whites during that same period.

Two factors play a part in whether you're likely to suffer from asthma: a cleaner living environment and genetics.

Many doctors believe the increase in Americans' susceptibility to allergies and asthma may be linked to the fact that children are leading healthier lives in cleaner living spaces.

The body typically grows resistant to allergies while fighting off childhood infections and diseases, says Dr. Henry Li, an allergist with the Institute for Asthma and Allergy.

But children are facing fewer and fewer infections as they grow up, which could leave them more susceptible to asthma, Li adds.

"When a society has developed and we have a cleaner and cleaner environment, there is less chance of getting childhood infections," Li says.

Heredity also plays a large part, says Stacey Schubert, an asthma sufferer who also works as an epidemiologist with the asthma program at the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Schubert's mother has asthma and her father suffers from allergies. Her brother also struggles with asthma. "There's definitely a genetic component to asthma," she says.

Schubert has had asthma since she was a child, and has seen great improvements in the treatment of the disease.

When she was young, she had to take fistfuls of medicines that weren't always effective. She found herself often dropping out of physical activities after growing short of breath, and eventually became overweight.

Now she's 36, and the newer medicines have improved to the point where she can lead a very active lifestyle with few asthma attacks. Schubert enjoys step aerobics, kickboxing, weight lifting and biking, and she enjoys them without the ever-present fear of losing her breath.

"Generally speaking, I don't have flare-ups or exacerbations," she says. "Controlling my asthma is very easy. I take my medications."

More information

To learn more about asthma, visit the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America or the American Lung Association.

SOURCES: Henry Li, M.D., allergist, Institute for Asthma and Allergy, Chevy Chase, Md.; Stacey Schubert, asthma sufferer and epidemiologist, Oregon Department of Human Services' asthma program
Consumer News