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Asthma is a lung disorder in which spasms and inflammation of the bronchial passages restrict the flow of air in and out of the lungs.
The number of people with asthma and the death rate from this condition have been increasing since the late 1980s. Environmental pollution may be one of the causes of this growing epidemic. Work exposure to flour or cotton dust, animal fur, smoke, and a wide variety of chemicals has been linked to increased risk of asthma.1
Findings from animal and human studies confirm that DTP (diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and pertussis) and tetanus vaccinations can induce allergic responses,2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and can increase the risk of allergies, including allergic asthma. An analysis of data from nearly 14,000 infants and children revealed that having a history of asthma is twice as great among those who were vaccinated with DTP or tetanus vaccines than among those who were not.7
An asthma attack usually begins with sudden fits of wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath. However, it may also begin insidiously with slowly increasing manifestations of respiratory distress. A sensation of tightness in the chest is also common.
Being overweight increases the risk of asthma.8 Obese people with asthma may improve their lung-function symptoms and overall health status by engaging in a weight-loss program. A controlled study found that weight loss resulted in significant decreases in episodes of shortness of breath, increases in overall breathing capacity, and decreases in the need for medication to control symptoms.9
A set of breathing exercises called Buteyko breathing techniques has been reported to significantly reduce the need for prescription drugs for people with asthma.10 Although the people in this controlled trial experienced an improved quality of life while doing these exercises, objective measures of breathing capacity did not improve, despite the decreased need for drugs.
Antibiotic use during the first year or two of life has been associated with an increased risk of asthma in preliminary studies.11, 12 Whether this association might result from allergic versus non-allergic effects remains unknown. However, the association does suggest that, until more is known, gratuitous use of antibiotics in early childhood (e.g., to inappropriately treat viral diseases) should be reconsidered. Of course, the appropriate use of antibiotics in the treatment of infections as necessary should not be avoided. Concerns should be discussed with the prescribing physician.
Acupuncture might be useful for some asthmatics. Case reports13, 14 and preliminary trials15, 16, 17 have suggested acupuncture may be helpful for people with asthma, either as a treatment for an acute attack or as a longer term therapy for reducing the number or severity of attacks, decreasing the need for medications, and so on. Placebo-controlled trials using sham (“fake”) acupuncture, however, have been quite contradictory, many of them showing a strong placebo effect that is not significantly improved upon by real acupuncture.18, 19, 20, 21 It is possible that needle insertion in non-acupuncture points has a stimulating effect that benefits asthma. The success of acupuncture may also depend on other factors, such as the type of asthma being treated and certain characteristics of the patient. Nonetheless, since some controlled research has demonstrated positive effects of real acupuncture, people with asthma may want to consider a trial of acupuncture treatment to see if it helps their individual cases.
Chiropractic physicians have reported that manipulation may be helpful for patients with asthma.22, 23, 24 In a controlled study, chronic asthmatics received either real or sham chiropractic manipulations for four weeks, after which the treatments were switched for another four weeks. No improvement in measurements of lung function was found at the end of the study. In addition, while both the manipulation and the sham treatment groups reported significant decreases in asthma frequency and severity, there were no differences between the treatments.25 A larger controlled study compared chiropractic manipulation to sham manual treatments in children whose asthma was still a problem despite usual medical management.26 Both groups experienced a significant decrease in symptoms and need for medication, as well as small increases in ability to breathe. These benefits lasted for four months after the treatments were discontinued. Although there was no additional benefit of chiropractic compared to the sham treatments, it is possible that improvements in both groups were real, rather than placebo effects. The sham therapy, which consisted of “soft tissue massage and gentle palpation [touching],” may have had real effects. More research is needed to address this confusing issue.
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2015.