Today is World Asthma Day. Since 1998, the Global Initiative for Asthma has been using the first Tuesday in May to draw attention to this common respiratory ailment and improve diagnosis and care worldwide. The inaugural event was held in 1998. Several events will be held around the world today. Here is a quick overview of the disease.

What is asthma?

The Health Authority Abu Dhabi defines it as a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs that causes periodic episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing. When an attack occurs, mucus production increases, the muscles of the bronchial tree tighten, and the lining of the air passages swells, reducing airflow and producing the characteristic wheezing sound.

The estimated number of asthmatics globally varies from 235 million (World Health Organisation) to 334 million (Global Asthma Network). In the UAE, an estimated 14 per cent of UAE residents who have asthma, according to official data, and the cost of treating asthma annually runs to Dh88 million in Dubai alone, according to researchers from Rashid Hospital Dubai. 

Common symptoms of asthma

  • Coughing, especially at night, during exercise or when laughing
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing


Top causes of asthma 

The fundamental causes of asthma have yet to be identified, but researchers from the WHO and elsewhere list various risk factors and environmental agents. These include:

  1. Genetics: Three-fifths of all asthma is hereditary — those with asthmatic parents are three to six times more likely to have it.
  2. Gender: While boys are more likely to develop asthma due to narrower respiratory tracts, by adulthood, women report more severe asthma. The change occurs at puberty, University of Groningen scientists found in a study.
  3. Obesity: Asthma is more common in overweight adults and children, who report more uncontrolled attacks and need more meds.
  4. Indoor allergens: May include dust mites in beds, rugs and curtains, cockroaches, pet dander, and nitrogen dioxide from gas stoves.
  5. Outdoor allergens: Allergic asthma may be set off by grass, tree and weed pollens, moulds, dust and animal dander.
  6. Tobacco smoke: The Centres for Disease Control & Prevention says anyone exposed to second-hand smoke is at risk of asthma.
  7. Chemical irritants: About 15 per cent of cases are occupational asthma, triggered by flour and grain dust, isocyanates (chemicals often found in spray paint), latex, animals and wood dust, according to the NHS. 
  8. Emotions: Roughly 69 per cent of patients said stress triggers their asthma, while half of all respondents in an American Thoracic Society study said laughter set off attacks. Anger and fear are other common emotional prompts.
  9. Medications: From aspirin to other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and beta-blockers (which are used to treat high blood pressure, heart conditions and migraine)

Treatable, not curable

Asthma is incurable, but careful management allows patients to enjoy a good quality of life, the WHO says. Asthma is treated with a variety of approaches. Short-term medicines help relieve symptoms. People with persistent symptoms must take long-term medication daily to control the underlying inflammation and prevent exacerbations. It is also important to avoid triggers, defined as stimuli that irritate and inflame the airways. Each asthma patient must learn what triggers to avoid. Although asthma is not a terminal condition on the scale of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, failure to take proper medicines or adhere to treatment can result in death.