There has been a spike in cases of asthma in the United States, despite the nation's improved air quality over the last 10 years. Experts are now emphasizing the role of food and environmental allergies in the incidence of the chronic disease.
Jewell Benton suffers from asthma. Sometimes it is so severe, that even walking a few steps can make her breathless.
“It doesn’t feel like the air is coming up fast enough," said Benton. "When I would come upstairs to my bedroom, I would lean over my dresser to catch my breath.”
Asthma sufferers like Benton can spend a lifetime fighting off the typical symptoms of the disease - wheezing, tightness in the chest, coughing and shortness of breath.
According to Paul Garbe, chief of the respiratory health branch at the Centers for Disease Control, the latest research indicates that some race, gender and age groups carry a greater burden of asthma than others.
“Children have higher asthma rates," said Garbe. "Women have higher asthma rates. African American men have higher asthma rates. Among children, the group that is most affected is African American children - they have an asthma rate that’s almost 17 percent the highest for any group of children.”
The World Health Organization estimates that asthma affects about 235 million people. One in 12 Americans suffers from asthma despite improved air quality and continuing efforts to educate people about smoking and other pollutants that can pose a danger to asthmatics.
New research has also shown that food and environmental allergies developed in early childhood increase the risk of asthma in adulthood. Experts say that the key to managing the chronic disease is avoiding substances in the environment that can trigger asthma attacks, and learning how to deal with its symptoms.
“We don’t know what causes asthma so we can’t prevent someone from developing asthma," said Garbe. "We do know that once they have developed asthma and they are diagnosed by their physician as having asthma, we can prevent asthma attacks. They can learn to manage their asthma, but it’s important that they have good medical care, that they see a physician, that the physician assesses the severity of their illness - prescribes appropriate medications and teaches the child and parents of the child how to manage the disease.”
Doctors say asthma is not curable and there are frustratingly few medications to treat it -- primarily corticosteroid inhalers, pills and injections.
A new FDA-approved surgical procedure called bronchial thermoplasty is in its final testing period. It uses heat to enlarge airways, and experts say it could offer real hope to people suffering from severe cases of asthma.
Dr Sumita Khatri, at the Cleveland Clinic, is one of the few doctors who has performed the procedure. She found it to be effective in some of her patients.
“The concept is to try to reduce the thickness of the muscle in the airways which can cause some of the spasming and constriction of airways in asthma," said Khatri.
But Dr. Khatri warns there are side effects, including irritation of lung tissues, and even flaring up of the asthma it is supposed to cure. She says bronchial thermoplasty is not for patients with mild asthma and should be considered a complement to current therapies for patients whose symptom can not be controlled with standard asthma treatments.