Asthma is a chronic condition of the bronchioles, or small airways, inside the lungs. Airways are passages through which air flows, providing oxygen - an essential ingredient in maintaining life in the body. Since we need oxygen to live, a lack of it can be very distressing and even dangerous. This section is designed to provide you with some knowledge on asthma. You will find more detailed knowledge on specific topics elsewhere on the website. A range of printed pamphlets is also available from Asthma New Zealand – The Lung Association and its affiliates.
What happens in the lungs?
The airways in a person who has asthma are oversensitive (allergic), and are irritated easily. The irritation causes the inside of the airway to become red and swollen (inflammation) and the muscles surrounding the airway walls tighten (bronchoconstriction). These two processes narrow the airway passages, making breathing very difficult at times.
Symptoms may come and go
Another important feature of asthma is that it is chronic, that means it is present in the airways all the time. It can become acute when symptoms get a lot worse this is when it is most distressing. The airways have become so narrow, it makes breathing very difficult.
An acute episode is recognised with the following signs:
Difficulty speaking - shortness of breath leads to difficulty speaking. May be unable to finish a sentence without inhaling, in the very acute phase can only say one word with each breath.
Breathless - breathing rate increases
Raising shoulders - as breathing becomes more difficult, the muscles at the base of the neck, along with the abdominal muscles, draw in and shoulders lift up.
Blueness around the mouth and finger tips - because less oxygen is available to the body it shows in a bluish tinge at the mouth and fingers. This is a late sign and is an emergency.
Wheezing - becomes louder as asthma symptoms get worse. If wheezing disappears and no improvement of symptoms it is a sign of great urgency.
So why does it get worse?
Asthma symptoms are made worse when you are exposed to a TRIGGER. Triggers are substances in the air/or which are taken by mouth and cause an increase in the irritation of the airways.
You may have one, a couple or several triggers. Your doctor can help establish what your triggers are by asking you to get a skin prick test. Staying away from triggers is one way to help control your asthma.
For some of the common triggers of Asthma, see "Triggers" to the left or go to the Downloads page for more information about allergies and triggers.
How asthma can be managed
While there’s no cure for asthma, it can be managed successfully by:
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