Asthma affects more people than any other respiratory condition, accounting for over 200,000 deaths a year. It is characterized by bronchial inflammation and constriction, as well as an increase in mucus production by cells of the respiratory system. Although asthmatics don't usually experience symptoms continuously, they must constantly be aware of their surroundings in an attempt to prevent asthma attacks.
An asthma attack is usually triggered by some environmental stimuli like pollution, cold air, pollen, etc. Depending on the progression of the condition, an attack can be mild or severe. Most asthma attacks are considered mild, and sufferers may experience wheezing, tightening in the chest, and increase in breathing rate and coughing, or an "out-of-breath" feeling. These types of attacks can usually be managed by taking a prescribed asthma medication, such as a bronchodilator, allowing airways to open within a few minutes to an hour.
More severe attacks are characterized by symptoms like bluish-gray nail beds and lips, racing heart rate, difficultly finishing sentences without first taking a deep breath, recession (skin covering ribs is sucked in so far that individual ribs are distinguishable), tightening neck and chest muscles, pale and clammy face or hands, and light-headedness. In these cases, fast-acting inhalers often fail to improve conditions. If left untreated, the lungs will eventually tighten so much that wheezing ceases, a dangerous sign that air movement is at a minimum. This condition is known as a "silent chest", and often requires an immediate trip to a hospital. Without aggressive treatment, patients experiencing such a severe attack will lose consciousness and eventually die from lack of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs.
Early Signs of an Impending Asthma Attack
Asthma attacks are called "attacks" for a reason: they come on very quickly. However, there are early warning signs that can help to avoid even mild attacks. Losing your breath easily or often experiencing shortness of breath, frequent coughing - especially at night - due to a build-up of mucus or irritated airways, feeling tired or grouchy, or wheezing and coughing after exercise are all symptoms that can signal an impending asthma attack.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have recently invented a nanosensor that can detect minute changes in nitric oxide concentration. What does this have to do with asthma? It has previously been discovered that the concentration of nitric oxide in breath rises sharply before an asthma attack. Levels have been shown to increase even three weeks before an attack. The recently developed nanosensor would allow asthma patients to periodically blow into the device to monitor their nitric oxide levels, much like a diabetic patient can monitor their blood-glucose levels. Although the sensor isn't currently available, it is undergoing human clinical trials, meaning it will be likely on the market in the next few years. Recognizing signs of an asthma attack in advance could potentially save thousands of lives each year, not to mention prevent hundreds and hundreds of trips to the hospital.
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