During May's Asthma Awareness Month, here are the top 10 things you should know about this often-misunderstood disease that affects more than 24 million people in the U.S.:
1. All asthma is serious -- 10 people die from it each day in the U.S. Many who experience a life-threatening attack had previously been diagnosed with mild asthma.
2. Most people's asthma is not as well controlled as they think, as observed in a recent survey. If you use your quick-relief bronchodilator inhaler more than two times a week (other than before exercise), wake up with symptoms more than two times a month or refill your bronchodilator more than two times a year, your asthma is not under control, and you should talk with your doctor about revising your treatment plan.
3. Asthma is more than just coughing and wheezing. These symptoms are a result of underlying lung inflammation. Since you can't feel or hear this simmering inflammation, it's important to take your an anti-inflammatory controller medication every day, if prescribed, even when you're feeling well.
4. Asthma medications are not addictive; the corticosteroids used to reduce inflammation are not the same as damaging anabolic steroids.
5. Asthma is not just a childhood disease; it can appear at any age and last a lifetime. Asthma can also be situational -- sparked by allergies, exercise or pregnancy, for example. Symptoms can arise due to a cold or the flu, especially among children.
6. Children do not "outgrow" asthma. Your immune system changes throughout your lifetime, and your asthma will, too. Symptoms may ease and go into remission, but the danger of lung inflammation remains and often reappears in adulthood, especially in response to hormonal changes.
7. People with asthma should not be afraid to exercise. You may need to premedicate and spend time warming up and cooling down, but strengthening your lungs and heart is always a good idea. Many professional, elite and Olympic athletes have asthma.
8. About 70 percent of people with asthma also have allergies, and the two are closely linked. Exposure to things you are allergic to -- such as pollen, mold, pet dander and dust mites -- increases lung inflammation and triggers coughing and wheezing. If you control allergies through avoidance, medication or immunotherapy, you often control asthma.
9. Exposure to secondhand smoke and air pollution during early childhood or the mother's pregnancy increases a child's risk of developing asthma. Do not allow others to smoke in your home or car, and teach your child to keep away from secondhand smoke.
10. Each person's asthma is unique and will respond to treatments differently. New bronchial treatments and biologic medications that target individual immune system processes are making a difference in the lives of people with severe, difficult-to-treat asthma. Talk with your doctor about your medications, how effective they are and if you should consider different treatments.
Purvi Parikh, MD, is an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, the leading nonprofit patient education organization for people with allergies, asthma and related conditions. She practices in New York City at Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill and New York University School of Medicine. She sits on the Board of Directors for the advocacy council of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.