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What Is Asthma?, Treatment Of Asthma, Can Asthma Attacks Be Prevented?

Asthma is a lung disease that affects approximately four million people in the United States. In people with asthma, the airways of the lungs are hypersensitive to irritants such as cigarette smoke or allergens. When these irritants are inhaled, the airways react by constricting, or narrowing. Some people with asthma have only mild, intermittent symptoms that can be controlled without drugs. In others, the symptoms are chronic, severe, and sometimes life threatening. Although researchers have learned more about the underlying causes of asthma in recent years, a definitive treatment is still unavailable. In fact, deaths from asthma are on the rise. In the last decade, asthma deaths worldwide rose 31%. The reasons for this increase are not clear; however, many experts believe that the lack of standard treatments and the inconsistent monitoring of asthma patients have contributed to the increased mortality rate.

Anti-inflammatory drugs

Anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the swelling and inflammation of the airways. These drugs can be inhaled or taken in pill form. Two types of anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed for asthma patients: chromolyn sodium and corticosteroids. Chromolyn sodium is also prescribed for people with allergies, and it has few side-effects. Oral corticosteroids are very effective in treating asthma, but should be reserved for severe cases, due to their serious side-effects. Short-term side effects include increased appetite, weight gain, hypertension, and fluid retention. Over the long-term, corticosteroids may cause osteoporosis, cataracts, and impaired immune response. These side-effects usually preclude the use of corticosteroids for long periods of time. In fact, short-courses of steroids are preferred. These "steroid bursts" are given over about a week's time and then discontinued, as a treatment for a sudden severe asthma attack, perhaps brought on by exposure to an allergen or a viral infection.

Inhaled corticosteroids have few side effects. These medications are also prescribed for allergy patients. Unlike their oral counterparts, these drugs can be taken for much longer periods of time. They are especially useful in controlling moderate asthma.

Another newer class of asthma medications are called leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs). These drugs, including an oral medication called zafirlukast, interfere with the actions of a class of chemicals called leukotrienes. Leukotrienes help produce the symptoms of asthma. Interference with their actions decrease asthma symptomatology. LTRAs are thought to greatly reduce asthma severity, when taken daily. LTRAs seem to work especially well in conjunction with inhaled steroids and salmeterol inhalers. This regimen (zafirlukast + inhaled steroids + inhaled salmeterol) seems to improving daily living for many asthmatics. Other inhaled bronchodilators are then reserved for exacerbations, such as may occur during a viral infection.

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