Though doctors don’t know what causes asthma, they do know what factors put you at risk. For instance, having a family history of asthma is the biggest one.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that causes the tubes in the lungs to constrict, making it difficult to breathe. This can take the form of coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath.
Asthma affects people of every age, but it most often begins in childhood. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that in 2014 more than 8 percent of children and 7 percent of adults in the United States suffered from asthma. That’s approximate 24 million people. Asthma comes at a high price; according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it costs the United States about $56 billion per year in medical treatment, missed work or school days, and early deaths.
While researchers know that asthma is an allergic condition that triggers inflammation in the airways, they still don’t know exactly what causes it. However, there are known risk factors that indicate whether you or your child are likely to develop this potentially dangerous disease.
Health history and asthma risk factors
Having a family history of asthma is one of the strongest predictors that you may develop it yourself, either as a child or an adult. According to the American Lung Association, you are three to six times more likely to suffer from asthma if you have an asthmatic parent than if you have no family history of the disease.
One study found that having a mother with asthma corresponded to a higher likelihood of developing the condition than having an asthmatic father, while having two asthmatic parents corresponded to the greatest likelihood of a child developing the disease as well.
A history of respiratory illnesses during childhood, particularly viral infections in the lungs, also corresponds to a stronger risk of asthma. And because asthma is an allergic condition, having allergies — or a family history of allergies — also puts you at risk. One study of young adults with asthma found that 61 percent of participants also had positive allergy skin tests.
However, a paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that while genetics and medical history are high risk factors, a combination of health and environmental factors is an even stronger predictor of whether you are likely to suffer from asthma.
Environmental risk factors for asthma
According to the World Health Organization, both adults and children are more likely to develop asthma if they are exposed to certain environmental irritants. These can include toxic chemicals at work sites, air pollution, allergens like pollen or mold, and tobacco smoke. Multiple studies have concluded that children are more likely to develop asthma — as well as a variety of other health problems — if their mothers smoke while pregnant.
Smoking is not the only prenatal factor that corresponds to an increased risk. One study found that children were two to three times more likely to develop allergic conditions, including asthma, if they were delivered by emergency cesarean section. The study’s authors speculated that this was due to a combination of maternal stress and the effect cesarean delivery has on infants’ intestinal bacteria and immune systems.
In addition to genetic, health, and environmental factors, socioeconomic status is also a risk factor for asthma.
According to the CDC, more than 10 percent of those living below the federal poverty threshold suffer from asthma, the largest percentage of any single socioeconomic group in the United States. This is not, however, because poverty causes asthma, but because poverty corresponds to a greater likelihood of other risk factors.
One of these risk factors is living in an urban setting, which causes greater exposure to air pollution and environmental chemicals. Another is obesity; a study conducted in Detroit found that obesity corresponded to an increased likelihood of asthma, especially among women.
The studies found that both poor and non-poor participants living in cities or suffering from obesity were at risk for asthma. However, they also concluded that poor participants were more likely to live in urban settings and be obese than participants in a higher income bracket, resulting in a greater percentage of those living in poverty suffering from asthma.
Though scientists have been able to discover many of the risk factors for asthma, there is still no known cure or exact way of predicting who will develop the disease. However, there are many treatments available that allow both children and adults to effectively manage their condition and continue living healthy, active lives.
If you suspect that you or your child are at risk for developing asthma, talk to a doctor about how to spot and manage its symptoms.
March 03, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN