Asthma is a chronic illness of the lungs and respiratory system. Asthma complications can occur due to medication, chronic inflammation, respiratory failure, and more.

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Asthma, also known as bronchial asthma, is a long-term, or chronic, condition that causes the airways to narrow and become inflamed. The condition can present at any age from childhood to adulthood.

The severity of asthma can vary. Some people experience only mild symptoms, while others have more acute symptoms that can cause difficulty breathing and lead to frequent hospitalizations.

An asthma attack occurs when the symptoms suddenly worsen. Asthma can also cause serious complications, particularly in people who have difficulty managing the condition, and can become life threatening.

In this article, we look at both medical and lifestyle complications of asthma and their causes.

Triggers of asthma symptoms can vary from person to person and can include a cold, respiratory illness, and exercise. Exposure to certain chemicals, as well as other substances, is also a typical trigger.

Common types of asthma include:

Medical complications of asthma can result from certain health conditions or other medical factors, including:

Medication side effects

Doctors often prescribe corticosteroids for asthma.

Most people who use inhaled corticosteroids will not experience any side effects. However, those who do most commonly develop a fungal infection in the mouth called thrush.

Oral corticosteroids can cause a number of side effects, such as weight gain, changes in eyesight, bloating, bruising, and cognitive problems.

The flu

People with asthma can have a severe reaction to the flu. Asthma causes the airways to become swollen and inflamed, and infections such as the flu can make this worse.

The flu can also trigger asthma attacks, respiratory failure, and other lung infections, such as pneumonia.

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation in the airways can lead to airway remodeling, which is a change in the structures in the airways, such as the blood vessels, epithelial tissue, glands, and muscles.

As a result, the walls of the airways become thicker and less elastic, which can worsen narrowing and swelling.

Respiratory failure

If a person does not get treatment for a severe asthma attack or if it does not respond to treatment, dangerous complications can arise.

The airways can become inflamed to an extent that air is unable to pass into the lungs, causing difficulty breathing and even death without emergency medical treatment.

Lifestyle complications of asthma can adversely affect a person’s quality of life, causing:

Sleep difficulties and fatigue

Certain asthma medications can cause insomnia. Some people with asthma experience more symptoms during sleep, which may make getting quality rest difficult.

Poor quality sleep can lead to tiredness and fatigue. Being tired can in turn make it more challenging to complete tasks, focus at work or school, and concentrate on other life activities. It can also cause problems with focus and attention, making it challenging to drive safely.

In addition, people with asthma are at more risk of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where people briefly stop breathing during sleep.

Lack of physical activity

Some people with asthma find it hard to engage in exercise or any other physical activity, because they are worried about triggering an asthma attack.

However, lack of exercise can increase a person’s risk of other medical conditions, such as osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Managing asthma and its symptoms can help people with the condition exercise safely.

Adults and children share many of the same asthma triggers, including dust mites and other environmental allergens, such as pollution and smoke.

However, children are more likely than adults to experience an asthma attack in response to the common cold.

Adults tend to have symptoms that require more regular treatment, although some adults only experience exercise-induced asthma.

If exercise triggers asthma symptoms in a child, this can indicate that it is difficult for them to keep their symptoms under control. A doctor may be able to adjust their medication accordingly or recommend other management techniques.

Both adults and children may experience complications that affect their lifestyle and everyday activities.

For example, children might fall behind at school because they miss more lessons than other children. Adults are more likely to take sick leave from work and may suffer from depression and fatigue.

Medical complications of asthma can be quite severe, especially if a person finds it hard to manage their condition.

Asthma is under control if the medication a person is taking prevents or minimizes the symptoms. When this is the case, then:

  • the condition does not cause a person to miss school or work
  • symptoms do not prevent a person from being active or doing exercise
  • a person makes minimal visits to the emergency room or requires little urgent care
  • a person uses an emergency inhaler less than twice per week
  • symptoms do not disturb a person’s sleep more than twice per month

People who experience any of these issues should contact a healthcare professional, who might suggest a change in medication.

It is also important to seek emergency medical care if a prescribed asthma medication, such as a rescue inhaler, does not reduce the symptoms of an asthma attack.

A person should call 911 immediately or go to the nearest emergency room if someone with asthma loses consciousness or is unable to breathe.

In the United States, asthma affects Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native people more commonly than it does white people. They may also find it more challenging to manage their asthma symptoms, which can lead to severe complications.

Data from 2018 show the following:

  • In one year, non-Hispanic Black Americans were 40% more likely to develop asthma than non-Hispanic white people. The following year, they were nearly three times more likely to die due to asthma complications than non-Hispanic white people.
  • There were twice as many people of Puerto Rican descent in the U.S. with asthma compared with the broader Hispanic population. Moreover, Hispanic people as a whole were twice as likely as non-Hispanic white people to go to the emergency room due to asthma complications.
  • American Indian and Alaska Native people were 20% more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic white people. However, data on the prevalence of asthma in this group are more limited.

Stress can trigger asthma. While genetic predisposition plays a role, people experiencing stressful situations from childhood are also at higher risk of developing the condition.

For marginalized groups, living with chronic racism and discrimination against them in various forms is a source of lifelong stress.

Moreover, historical disadvantages often mean that these groups may have less access to proper medical care and that they experience more exposure to additional stressors, such as poverty and violence. These in turn can lead to many conditions that can exacerbate asthma, such as obesity.

Studies also show that some healthcare professionals have implicit, and sometimes explicit, biases against people from marginalized groups. This may prevent people from these groups from getting timely and appropriate treatment for their asthma symptoms. This can also play a role in the development of life threatening complications.

Asthma is a potentially serious condition that can cause several medical and lifestyle complications.

It is important to stay in touch with a doctor, especially if medications or lifestyle changes are insufficient to manage asthma symptoms. Changes to a person’s medication regimen can improve their lifestyle and help reduce the risk of other health issues.

It is important to note that marginalized groups in the U.S. tend to have greater risk of developing asthma and more severe complications due to social, economic, and structural disparities.