Asthma is a lung disease that is marked by reversible narrowing of the airways that causes difficulty in breathing. Asthma is a chronic disease but can manifest as acute attacks.
Asthma attacks occur when there is an obstruction in the flow of air in the lungs. The obstruction is due to the inflammation and constriction of the airways that hinder the regular movement of air in the lungs.
Although to date there is no known cause of this disease, it can be triggered by various irritants. The irritants cause a flare-up of the symptoms. An aggravated case can bring on a sudden asthma attack. Asthma attacks can be fatal if not taken care of at the right time.
Although asthma is incurable, you can curtail the incidence of flare-ups by preventive measures and lifestyle and dietary changes.
An asthma flare-up can be a result of various factors, which can be an allergen or any other agent that can either worsen or cause the symptoms to be manifested in the suffering individual. Some of the asthma triggers include:
- Cold weather
- Physical exertion
- Emotional stress
- Air pollution
- Animal dander
- Respiratory infections
- Sulfites in food
- Certain medications used to treat migraines, heart diseases, or high blood pressure, such as aspirin and NSAIDs
Symptoms of an Asthma Flare-Up
The constriction of the airways can be caused by inflammation and swelling in the air passages. Although airway constriction can be manifested by the following symptoms, it is not restricted entirely to these:
- Chest tightness
- Coughing in the early morning or late at night, which may become chronic
- Wheezing while exhaling
- Shortness of breath
- Mucus buildup
- Difficulty sleeping
Diagnosis of Asthma
Your doctor will investigate the symptoms and any known triggers that may play a role in worsening your condition.
Aside from the hallmark symptoms of asthma, your doctor is likely to check your lung function by using a spirometer to determine the flow of air in your lungs.
Medical Treatment for Asthma
Medications to treat asthma can be aimed at providing quick relief or controlling the condition in the long term. Also, immunotherapy is advised to prevent a flare-up of allergies that can trigger an asthma attack. The treatment method and drug dosages may differ between adults (age 17 and above) and children (ages 5 to 16).
The medications for asthma fall in the category of bronchodilators. These are administered in the form of an inhaler, nebulizer, and pills. The inhaler is a pump that can be used as an immediate rescue in the event of an attack as it lets the bronchodilator enter your lungs through the oral route as you inhale.
The mode of action is expanding the narrowed airways of the lungs to smoothen the flow of air and facilitate easy breathing. In addition, bronchodilators play a role in clearing away mucus and allowing its free movement, preventing obstruction that may be a hindrance in breathing.
Managing the Symptoms of Asthma at Home
Aside from being medically treated by an expert, you can implement some lifestyle and dietary changes in your routine to cope with the symptoms and pare down the incidence of asthma attacks.
1. Manage Stress
Stress can trigger an asthma attack and worsen existent symptoms. Keep tabs on your stress levels by doing meditation, deep breathing, and mind-body exercises or engaging yourself in a hobby. Being emotionally well can help keep your health in good shape.
2. Regulate Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D is an anti-inflammatory, and researchers have hypothesized that it may help relieve the symptoms of asthma. Also, it may reduce the chances of getting asthma in early childhood, and asthmatic individuals with an adequate amount of vitamin D may decrease their chances of having frequent asthma attacks.
You cannot entirely rely on food sources to fulfill your daily vitamin D requirements. A natural way to help in the synthesis of vitamin D is daily sun exposure. Also, you can consider vitamin D supplements after a doctor’s consultation.
3. Follow an Exercise Regimen
Incorporating physical activity in your routine can help reduce the severity of asthma. Aerobic exercises can help strengthen the muscles of your lungs and heart.
- Choose simple exercise such as brisk walking, light cycling, or slow dancing, which are easy on your lungs and will not leave you panting for breath.
- You can also practice yoga, which involves deep breathing techniques and postures, both aimed at strengthening your lung function.
Dietary Recommendations to Aid Recovery
1. Foods to Avoid
Refrain from consuming certain foods that can trigger an asthma attack:
- Avoid eating processed and packaged foods with artificial food additives and preservatives. The chemicals may trigger asthma attacks.
- Also, avoid eating saturated fat in excess as it can interfere with the mechanism of action of the medications for asthma.
- Restrict your intake of milk and dairy products if you are allergic to milk proteins or have lactose intolerance due to lactase deficiency. Those who do not suffer from these problems, however, can consume milk as the fats in whole milk tend to have a protective effect against asthma symptoms.
- Avoid alcohol, carbonated beverages, and foods that are associated with food allergies such as groundnuts.
2. Foods to Include
Incorporate your diet with:
- At least two servings of coldwater fish, such as salmon, cod, mackerel, and herring, a week. You can also take omega-3 supplements after consulting your doctor.
- Two servings of fresh fruits and five servings of vegetables a day.
- Lean meats and skinless chicken.
- Magnesium-rich foods such as nuts and green vegetables. Magnesium acts as a bronchodilator and can help reduce the symptoms of asthma.
3. Choose Ginger Decoctions
Ginger is a well-known natural treatment for various ailments including asthma. Researchers have found that it can help reduce airway inflammation and inhibit airway contraction.
A study corroborated the role of ginger extracts in successfully alleviating allergic reactions by inhibiting the release of IgE antibodies, which are associated with an inflammation reaction. Ginger extracts successfully reduced the inflammation of the airways and the secretion of the mucus, among many other effects.
Plus, studies indicate that ginger contains compounds that may enhance the muscle relaxant effects of certain asthma drugs.
- Mix equal quantities of ginger juice, pomegranate juice, and honey. Consume 1 tablespoon of this mixture two or three times a day.
- Alternatively, you can mix 1 teaspoon of ground ginger in 1½ cups of water and take 1 tablespoon of this mixture at bedtime.
- Cut 1 inch of ginger into small pieces and add them to a pot of boiling water. Let the ginger steep for 5 minutes, allow the liquid to cool down, and then drink it.
- To detoxify your lungs, prepare a fenugreek decoction by boiling 1 tablespoon of fenugreek seeds in 1 cup of water and mixing 1 teaspoon each of ginger juice and honey in it. Drink this solution every morning and evening.
- You can also eat raw ginger mixed with salt.
4. Try Turmeric Tea
Turmeric contains a bioactive compound called curcumin. Curcumin can help curtail inflammation, oxidization, and free radical damage. It has been reported that curcumin can help curb the inflammation in the airways of mice; pretreating the inflammatory cells of the lung tissue with curcumin showed significant improvement.
- To 4 cups of water, add 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder. Let it simmer for 12 minutes. Strain the liquid and add a pinch of lemon or honey as desired. Drink this tea every day if you suffer from frequent allergies that trigger an asthma attack.
- Prepare a paste of 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder and 2 teaspoons of honey. Eat this paste every day.
5. Relieve Your Airways with Garlic
Garlic is a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. Vitamin C plays a crucial role as an antioxidant, fighting inflammation in the airways.
Garlic also aids in the formation of biomolecules called prostacyclins, which can help clear the air passages of the affected individual and help him breathe normally.
The following garlic remedy can help clear the congestion in your lungs during the early stages of asthma.
- Boil two or three garlic cloves in 1/4 cup of milk.
- Allow it to cool to room temperature and then drink it.
6. Drink a Cup of Coffee to Dilate the Airways
Hot coffee helps relax and clear the airways to help you to breathe easily. The stronger the coffee, the better the result.
- Try not to drink more than 3 cups of black coffee in a day. If you do not like coffee, you can opt for a cup of hot black tea. Do not use caffeine as a regular treatment though.
7. Take Fish Oil to Reduce Inflammation
Fish oil contains an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids, namely, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish oil can give you a steady supply of these fatty acids necessary to stave off inflammation and, in turn, an asthma flare-up.
A study corroborated that fish oil, when taken by pregnant women in the third trimester, was related to a reduced incidence of their children being diagnosed with asthma in childhood and adulthood.
Keeping in mind the positive impact of fish oil on mild, moderate, and severe cases of asthma, its supplementation has a relevance that concerns public health.
- Consult your doctor for fish oil supplements or eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fishes and flaxseeds.
8. Remove Phlegm with Honey
Honey is one of the oldest natural cures for asthma. The alcohol and ethereal oils in honey help resolve the symptoms of asthma and stop an asthma attack in its tracks.
The consumption of honey to treat cough and colds is long known. A study demonstrated that the inhalation of honey reduces inflammation in the passageways of the lungs. Inhalation ensures the deposition of honey in the airways, treating the excess mucus buildup and goblet cell hyperplasia.
- Just inhaling the smell of honey produces positive results for some people.
- You can also mix 1 teaspoon of honey into 1 glass of hot water and drink the solution slowly three times a day.
- Before going to bed, swallow 1 teaspoon of honey with 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon powder. This helps remove phlegm from your throat and allows you to sleep better.
9. Use Lemons to Inhibit Allergies
People with asthma often have low levels of vitamin C. Lemons are rich in this vitamin and antioxidants that can help reduce asthma symptoms. It has been reported that lemons contain flavanone glycosides, eriocitrin, and hesperidin, which are potent antiallergic compounds that can help stave off an allergic response.
- Squeeze the juice of half a lemon in 1 glass of water and add some sugar according to your taste. Drink this solution regularly to reduce asthma attacks.
10. Use Carom Seeds to Dilate the Air Passages
Carom seeds, also known as bishop’s weed, can also be used to treat mild asthma as it acts as a bronchodilator by dilating the bronchial tubes in the lungs.
- Boil 1 teaspoon of carom seeds in some water and inhale the steam, as needed. You can also drink it.
- Alternatively, heat a handful of carom seeds wrapped in a piece of cotton cloth in a microwave for a few seconds. When it is comfortably hot, place it on your chest and neck until it cools. Repeat this daily until you are satisfied with the results.
- Another option is to heat a paste of carom seeds and jaggery and eat 1-2 teaspoons of this paste twice daily for a few days or until you get relief. This remedy is not recommended for people with diabetes.
11. Use Antiallergenic Figs
The nutritional properties of figs promote respiratory health, help drain phlegm, and alleviate breathing difficulties.
- Wash three dried figs and soak them in 1 cup of water overnight.
- In the morning, eat the soaked figs and drink the fig water on an empty stomach.
Continue this home treatment for a couple of months.
Consider Aromatherapy (Eucalyptus Oil)
Pure eucalyptus oil is an effective treatment for asthma symptoms because of its decongestant properties.
Research indicates that eucalyptus contains a chemical called eucalyptol, which can help break up mucus, promotes immune response, and provides relaxing and anti-inflammatory effects on respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, asthma, and sinusitis.
- Just put a few drops of eucalyptus oil on a paper towel and keep it by your head when sleeping so that you breathe in the aroma.
- You can also put 2-3 drops of eucalyptus oil in a pot of boiling water and breathe in the steam. Try to take deep breaths for faster results.
The following remedies are neither backed by scientific evidence nor are they reviewed by our health experts. Nonetheless, a number of general users have reported an improvement in their condition using these anecdotal remedies.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar has been used since ages to treat the chronic cough and hoarseness associated with asthma.
- Pour 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to 1 glass of water. Stir the ingredients well. Sip the solution slowly for a period of half an hour.
- Soak a cotton pad in apple cider vinegar. Apply pressure as you hold this cotton pad against the inside of your wrists.
2. Include Kiwi in Your Diet
The vitamin C content, antioxidants, and phenolic compounds in kiwi can help improve asthma symptoms.
- Prefer organic kiwis as they have much higher phytonutrient content than commercially grown kiwi fruits.
3. Buteyko Breathing Technique
The Buteyko technique is a breathing technique that is similar to the yogic pranayama.
- Controlled Breathing: Inhale two regular breaths and breathe out. See for how long you can hold your breath. Aim for at least 60 seconds.
- Shallow Breathing: Breath through your nose for 5 minutes. Then, take shallow breaths using one nostril. Keep your mouth closed. You can then take a controlled breathing test to see if your holding time has improved.
- Repeat: Repeat step 1 about four times consecutively. This will take about 25 minutes.
Perform this breathing exercise three to four times every day. The aim should be to extend your holding time with every session of the exercise.
Preventing an Asthma Flare-Up
Although asthma is incurable, you can prevent an impending asthma attack by following certain measures, including the following:
- Identify your asthma triggers and avoid them. Steer clear of allergens, irritants, and pollutants in the air and respiratory infections.
- Pet dander, scales from the skin, hair, feathers, and dried urine or saliva can aggravate your allergies. Keep your pet at a distance if you have a pet allergy.
- Disinfect your house regularly. Mold growth can be a reason for an allergy flare-up. It has been observed that Aspergillus fumigatus was present in patients with severe asthma.
- Wash your bedding and clothing regularly. Keep your house dirt-free.
- Keep track of the weather conditions before going out to avoid contracting an allergy.
- Get yourself administered with flu and allergy shots to prevent a flare-up of symptoms.
- Install a humidifier and air purifier in your room.
- Quit smoking and avoid exposure to passive smoke.
Risk Factors for Asthma
Certain factors can increase the likelihood of getting asthma in certain individuals. Such factors include:
Gender: During childhood, asthma is more common in boys, while among adults and teenagers, it is commonly present in women. Studies indicate that as women progress in age and reach menopause, the incidence of asthma decreases except in those undergoing postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy.
Genetics: Individuals with a family history of allergies, asthma, hay fever, or eczema have a chance of getting the disease.
Occupational Hazards: People who inhale chemical fumes, gases, or dust at work such as while welding, spraying, and mining are prone to developing asthma.
Obesity: Obesity can increase the risk of asthma by about 50%. The high-fat diet consumed by obese people can bring about inflammation and metabolic disorders that can result in a lung volume less than normal.
Ethnicity: Puerto Ricans and African-Americans are at a higher risk of contracting asthma.
Alcohol: Although alcohol is a mild bronchodilator, asthma may be triggered by the sulfites or acetaldehyde present in it.
In rare cases, asthma can lead to a number of serious respiratory complications, including:
- Infection of the lungs such as pneumonia
- The collapse of part or all of the lung
- Persistent exhaustion
- Absence from school and work, leading to poor performance
- Delay in growth and development such as puberty in children
- Respiratory failure, where the levels of oxygen in the blood become dangerously low or the levels of carbon dioxide become dangerously high
- Status asthmaticus (severe asthma attacks that do not respond to treatment)
When to See a Doctor
The symptoms of asthma are similar to other diseases of the lungs such as a chest infection. It is necessary to visit a doctor and get your condition diagnosed on time.
- Fast breathing with chest retractions (skin sucks in between or around the chest plate and/or rib bones when inhaling)
- Cyanosis (very pale or blue coloring in the face, lips, and fingernails)
- The rapid movement of the nostrils
- Ribs or stomach moving in and out deeply and rapidly
- An expanded chest that does not deflate when you exhale
- Failure of infants with asthma to respond to or recognize their parents
Asthma is a chronic lung disease with no permanent cure. However, you can manage your condition with medications and natural strategies. Although medications provide quick relief, they are usually associated with side effects.
Adopting a holistic approach, which includes taking the prescribed medications, incorporating changes in the diet, and practicing a lifestyle aimed at prevention, can greatly reduce the severity of asthma and prevent its complications.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Maeve O’Connor, MD (Allergist/Immunologist)
What is the prescribed way to manage an asthma attack in the absence of an inhaler?
If no quick-relief or rescue inhaler is available (having a rescue inhaler on hand is VERY IMPORTANT), the best way to manage an asthma attack is to CALL 911. While waiting for the ambulance, staying calm is one of the most important things you can do which can help your respiratory muscles become less constricted.
Sit in an upright position to stop breathing constriction. Take slow, deep and long breaths to prevent hyperventilation. Use the “relaxing breath” technique. I suggest breathing in through the nose for a count of 4, holding the breath for 1 second and then slowly exhaling for a count of 4.
Staying calm may prevent further tightening of your chest muscles and make your breathing easier. The most important thing to remember is to not delay seeking emergency care when needed.
Is it possible to cure asthma permanently?
Asthma is a chronic condition and unfortunately cannot be cured. It can be managed effectively by avoiding known triggers and taking controlling medications as prescribed. If asthma is limiting your daily activities or waking you up at night, it is important to talk to your doctor about your asthma action plan.
How can one control asthmatic coughing spells during the night?
Coughing at night is a hallmark sign of poorly controlled asthma. If you are waking up more than two nights per month with coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath, you should talk to your doctor to better understand your type of asthma and what treatments may be available to manage the symptoms.
Poor sleep impacts your entire life, resulting in lost productivity and mood disturbance. For these reasons it is very important to minimize coughing at night.
Are caffeinated drinks helpful for asthma patients?
Hot caffeinated drinks like coffee can help to open up the airways slightly, providing symptomatic relief for an hour or two; however, this is not a long-term solution to addressing asthma symptoms.
Are there any particular food items that can trigger an asthma attack?
Each individual patient has unique triggers for his/her asthma. Some patients may have food allergies that can worsen or often be confused with asthma. If you are experiencing a severe allergic reaction and an asthma flare-up, it is important to err on the side of caution and treat with epinephrine for anaphylaxis first. Time is of the upmost importance and epinephrine should be administered quickly.
How can the excess mucus secreted following an asthmatic episode be cleared naturally?
Nasal saline rinses may help to clear mucus in the upper airway which often impacts the lower airways. It is also important to stay well hydrated by drinking at least two liters of water per day, unless you have kidney or heart issues.
About Dr. Maeve O’Connor, MD: Dr. O’Connor provides a more progressive approach for treating allergy, asthma and immunology patients. She is Board Certified by both the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. She is one of the only three specialists to have completed the University of Arizona Fellowship of Integrative Medicine and has been selected by her peers to be included in the Best Doctors of America database from 2011 to currently.
Dr. O’Connor is the only board-certified allergist in the region offering sublingual immunotherapy and is also performing clinical research. She is currently involved in clinical research of asthma, allergic rhinitis, immune deficiency and novel treatment for atopic diseases.
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