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Asthma: Physiological Effects

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Asthma is a chronic respiratory disorder in which inflammatory airway contraction reduces the flow of air to the lungs, causing shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. Although such choking of airways is typically temporary and shifting, in severe attacks asthma may result in death. During an asthma attack, a series of events is triggered, leading to airway blockage and breathing difficulty. People with asthma usually use certain medication to reduce the frequency and intensity of the attack (Lloyd, 2013). This article focuses on physiological changes in a body during an asthma attack, its other effects on a body, and possible treatments and solutions.

Oxygen is essential for functioning of every cell in the human body, and supplying oxygen to these cells is a main function of the lungs. Air passes through the mouth and throat with each breathing; further, through the larynx and then through the trachea. The trachea divides into two branches, namely the right bronchus and the left bronchus, which are directly connected to the lungs. Further, it divides into bronchioles. The bronchioles end in clusters of tiny air sacs, called alveoli. Oxygen diffuses through the alveoli walls in the lungs (Ahmad, 2004).

An asthma attack is a physiological disorder that occurs when the bronchi and bronchioles become inflamed, reducing the space through which air can travel through the lungs. It causes the asthmatic to struggle to allow air in and out of lungs. Initial physical effect on a body from an asthma attack is mild chest pressure and dry cough. As an attack intensifies, wheezing develops and increases in pitch, which results into more difficulty in breathing. Further, coughing produces thick, fibrous mucus. The cells of the body start to burn oxygen at a higher rate in a reaction of inflammation of airways, which prevents sufficient supply of oxy-rich air to the alveoli. This results into more increasing demand for oxygen of the body (Ahmad, 2004).

Several types of cells of the immune system, including mast cells, macrophages, neutrophils, and eosinophil, play a vital role in the pathophysiology of an asthma attack. Various stimuli can trigger an attack, such as dust, pollen, smoke, animal hair, and fumes (Lloyd, 2013). In response to such stimuli, the bands of a muscle that surround the airways tighten and compress the airways. This tightening is called as bronchospasm (“Asthma: An Overview,” n.d.). Stimuli are detected by nerves within the pulmonary plexus, which is a group of nerves in the lungs. Next, this information transmits to the thoracic sympathetic chain, which then communicates with the spinal cord. The levels of the spinal cord receiving this input are in the upper thoracic spine i.e. T-15. The spinal cord then passes on this information to the brain, which stimulates increased mucus production, bronchial spasm, etc. through the vagus nerve (“The Science,” n.d.).

After detecting the irritant, the body’s immune system sends special cells known as mast cells to the airway walls. The mast cells release histamine, a chemical that causes swelling, bronchospasm, and redness in a process called the inflammatory response. In addition, goblet cells that lubricate the airways with mucus overreact to the inflammatory response by secreting too much mucus. This mucus blocks the bronchioles, resulting in wheezing, coughing, and heavy chest pain ending in an attack of asthma (Ahmad, 2004).

Asthma also affects significantly the other body systems. People have to work harder to get air into their lungs during an acute asthma attack, which puts additional stress on the heart. A rapid heart rate of 120 beats per minute or more, i.e. tachycardia, or irregular heart rate often occurs during the attack. Often a drop in systolic blood pressure, called pulsus paradoxus, occurs during an asthma attack (Robin, 2010).

An asthma attack leads to the lack of oxygen supply to the brain, resulting into confusion and excessive drowsiness. Hypoxic ischemic brain injury, which is caused by the lack of oxygen, also happens in several cases (Robin, 2010). Also, according to the research, breakdown and secretion of muscle fibre into the bloodstream, called rhabdomyolysis, can occur in people with asthma disorder. A protein pigment released from the damaged muscle, called myoglobin, filters through the kidney, blocking the structures and releasing harmful compounds. It may result into kidney failure and damage to the filtering tubules. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people with asthma mostly begin to wheeze and cough at night, leading into sleep deprivation which ends up in various psychological disturbances (Robin, 2010).

There is no cure for asthma, but with proper treatment, it can be controlled. There are two kinds of medications for asthma. Bronchodilators to reduce bronchospasm are the most widely used medications for controlling sudden attacks. Anti-inflammatory medications work mainly by interfering with the activity and chemistry of immune cells, which are the cause of the inflammation in the airway walls. Successful treatment is dependent on identification of the specific trigger that causes asthma. Immunotherapy is also a reliable treatment for asthma caused by allergens. Besides such medications, proper physical activities, regular exercise, and meditation are vital in controlling asthma (“Asthma: An Overview,” n.d.).

Today, asthma is the most common physical disorder observed among people. It has been considered a condition in which psychological and physiological factors have a key role. However, with proper medication and positive lifestyle, an asthmatic can curb asthma and its further side effects.

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