What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease in which there is a brief, temporary narrowing of the airways in the lungs, referred to as bronchospasm. This narrowing prevents air from moving in and out of the lungs easily. As a result, a person with asthma has episodes when breathing is difficult. An asthmatic episode can resolve spontaneously or may require treatment.

With the help of your physician, you may select from a wide variety of prescription medications. This is not true for over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, which are limited to epinephrine (adrenaline) and ephedrine. In addition, many people should not use epinephrine or ephedrine because of their relatively weak effectiveness or side effects.

To decide whether or not an OTC epinephrine or ephedrine product may be useful, you should understand:

1. the abnormal conditions that exist in the airways of asthmatics,
2. the effects of epinephrine and ephedrine,
3. the specific factors that should be considered when choosing and using epinephrine and ephedrine, and
4. the side effects of these drugs.

The advantages of using OTC medications for asthma include their affordability and accessibility (lack of need for a prescription and/or health-insurance approval). Unfortunately, these medications are less effective at controlling asthma and sometimes can be more dangerous.

Causes and Symptoms
The cause of asthma is unknown. More is known about the abnormal conditions that occur in asthma. These conditions include:

1. hyper-responsiveness(contraction) of the muscles of the breathing airways in response to many stimuli such as exercise or allergies (for example, drugs, food additives, dust mites, animal fur, and mold),
2. inflammation of the airways,
3. shedding of the tissue lining the airways,
4. increased secretion of mucus in the airways, and
5. swelling of the walls of the airways with fluid.

All of these conditions narrow the airways and make breathing difficult. Symptoms of asthma include wheezing (the hallmark of asthma), coughing, difficulty breathing, and tightness of the chest. Asthma is diagnosed by the presence of wheezing, but it can be confirmed by breathing tests (spirometry) that evaluate the movement of air into and out of the lungs.

Credit: George Schiffman, MD, FCCP, Medicine.net

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