The causes of asthma are not presently known and appear to be very complex. Genetics, allergic reactions, hormonal changes, obesity, stress, exercise, and environmental conditions can contribute to the development of asthma or trigger asthma attacks. The symptoms of asthma can occasionally recede without treatment, but more often a person experiencing asthma will need treatment — medication or even hospitalization — before they will be able to breathe comfortably on their own.

Few diseases touch as many Canadians as asthma does. Asthma is the third-most common chronic disease in Canada, affecting 2.4 million Canadians over the age of 12 (8.5 percent of the population) and another 490,000 children between the ages of 4 and 11 (15.6 percent of children in this age bracket).

Keeping it controlled

Many of these Canadians do not have control over their asthma. Fifty-three percent of people with the disease have what doctors call “poorly controlled” asthma. Asthma attacks are happening more often than they should be, lowering the quality of life for these men, women and children. And asthma still kills. Approximately 250 Canadians die each year from asthma. Around the world, approximately 250,000 people die prematurely each year because of asthma.

Uncontrolled asthma happens for a variety of reasons. A cold or other respiratory infection will sometimes prompt an asthma attack, as will environmental factors such as exposure to pollens or other allergens, exposure to certain chemicals, or poor air quality. Stress, physical activity, and cold weather can also induce an attack. However, evidence shows that using either the wrong medication — or the right medication incorrectly — is a leading cause of poor asthma control.

Getting the right treatment

Physicians normally prescribe two kinds of medication for asthma: controller medications (taken on a regular basis) and reliever medications (taken when an asthma attack is imminent or underway). There are also combination medications which contain both a controller and a reliever medication. Other options are available for severe asthma. 

Controller medications, used to prevent asthma attacks, treat the swelling in our airways proactively. They come in two forms, Inhaled Corticosteroids (using an inhaler device) and Leukotriene Receptor Antagonists, which come in tablet forms. Reliever medications relax the muscles around our airways and help us breathe normally within minutes of an asthma attack or flare-up. They are effective for between four hours (short acting relievers) and 12 hours (long-acting relievers). Combination medications contain both a controller and a long-acting reliever in one single inhaler.

Steps for staying safe

Asthma is a chronic but episodic illness. This means that people with asthma can often go for long periods of time without an asthma attack. Some patients stop taking their controller medication and rely on reliever medications. This can be an indication that there is a serious problem with asthma control, especially if patients are using their reliever medications four or more times a week. If this is the case, see your family physician as you may be at risk for a serious, life-threatening asthma attack. Asthma can be controlled. Ask your healthcare provider for help or read more online.