by Frederick Jaccarino, M.D.
Onomatopoeia is a term describing a word’s characteristic of sounding like its action or meaning, as in fizz, swish, and whoop. Medical jargon is replete with onomatopoeic words such as borborygmi and, I think, asthma. The former word describes the sounds of grumbly, burbling, intestines, while the latter is a condition associated with challenged, whistling respirations. Whisper the word asthma and you can hear the wheezy sounds stethoscopes deliver to the doctors’ ears. Those wheezes announce the struggle of the air flowing through narrowed bronchial air passages in asthmatic lungs.
Asthma is becoming a growing epidemic among American children living in the 21st century. The struggle to breathe for an asthmatic is caused by inflammation of the lungs which leads to narrowed air passages. The inflammation might be started by exposure to allergens or irritants in the environment. There are hundreds of potential allergens and irritants; consider dust, pet dandruff, mold, smoke, acid reflux, exercise, cold air, foods, viruses, and many more. Each asthma sufferer is likely sensitive to their own individual list of triggers. One strategy for managing asthma involves finding all of the individual’s triggers, and carefully avoiding them.
Susceptibility to asthma is usually genetically acquired, while attacks get triggered by environmental exposures. Families with asthma issues often also must deal with skin conditions like eczema and hives. Ironically, recent studies suggest the growing numbers of asthmatics might be attributed to the increased vigilance of modern parents, shielding their children from any exposures to germs and “dirt.” The theory is that the immune system learns to handle its business properly by seeing the allergens and other threats while the child is developing. If the child matures without those early interactions with germs and dirt, his or her inexperienced immune system will overreact when challenged later in childhood or young adulthood. Mom’s adage to “eat a peck of dirt” before you die may be lore worth remembering.
Managing asthma requires an understanding by the asthmatic of how to avoid attacks, what medications are needed to prevent attacks, and how to respond when things get worse. There are still thousands of asthma deaths which could be avoided if those three factors were understood and practiced.