If you have asthma, you might wonder whether it has long-term effects on your lungs.
Airway wall changes, known as airway remodeling, can accompany asthma inflammation. These changes are more notable in asthma that isn’t well managed.
However, it is possible to prevent lung damage from asthma — especially if you start treatment early and manage your symptoms well.
Airway remodeling can also lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Asthma doesn’t become COPD, but it’s easier to develop this condition if you have airway remodeling from unmanaged asthma.
People who live with both asthma and COPD are said to have asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS). It’s possible to misdiagnose ACOS as either asthma or COPD alone because the symptoms can be similar.
It’s important to identify ACOS if you have it, though. Asthma and COPD have different treatments.
Other potential impacts of asthma include:
- chronic sleep deprivation from nighttime symptoms
- health effects from reduced physical activity
- growth delay and learning disabilities in children
- missed work for adults
- coughing spells
- respiratory failure
Managing your asthma symptoms can slow airway remodeling, reduce your chances of COPD and ACOS, and protect your lungs.
While it may seem like asthma can get the better of you at times, you do have some control over your condition. Here are five actions you can take to maintain the health of your lungs.
The air you breathe may contain asthma triggers that cause attacks. Not everyone with asthma is affected by the same triggers.
If you can predict and avoid encounters with your triggers, you may be able to reduce the number of asthma flares you experience.
Common asthma triggers include:
- tobacco smoke
- dust mites
- pet fur
- household disinfectants
- indoor and outdoor pollution
The American Lung Association (ALA) describes lung inflammation from inhaling ozone as being like a bad sunburn in your lungs.
They recommend checking the air quality forecast for your area before planning outdoor work or exercise. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a webpage, Airnow.gov, where you can check the air quality in your area.
According to the ALA’s State of the Air Report for 2021, 11.5 million people with asthma live in counties with unhealthy levels of at least one pollutant. Consider an indoor exercise option as part of your plan for managing your asthma on poor air quality days.
In addition to being an asthma trigger, smoking is a risk factor for COPD. If you smoke and can give up this habit, you’ll reduce your chance of developing ACOS. The ALA has several smoking cessation tools that may help.
A study conducted between 2011 and 2012 found that only 8.3 percent of people fully adhered to their asthma medications. The term “adherence” refers to taking medication as directed by a healthcare professional, without missing a dose, for a continued time.
The issue of underadherence persists, and a
- drug regimen complexity
- fear of side effects
- inhaler technique
- misunderstood instructions
- denial about health condition
- inappropriate expectations
- dissatisfaction with healthcare professional
- cultural or religious reasons
The medication your healthcare professional prescribes to you is based on the latest research and is an important part of your asthma treatment plan.
According to the same research, higher medication adherence results in:
- positive health outcomes
- improvements in disease control
- reduced mortality
You can improve your medication adherence with some simple strategies:
- Ask your doctor for directions again to ensure you remember them correctly.
- Ask for help with your inhaler technique to make sure it’s effective.
- Use a reminder tool like an app or symbol on a calendar.
It’s important to be honest with your doctor about your treatment adherence. If they’re not aware that you haven’t been taking your medication, they may prescribe other unnecessary medications.
Respiratory infections can trigger asthma attacks and worsen symptoms. Avoiding infection protects your lungs.
Here are some steps the ALA suggests you can take to prevent infection:
- Get a flu vaccine.
- Stay away from crowded places during flu season.
- Wash your hands often.
- Brush your teeth at least twice per day.
- Avoid touching your face.
Start self-care at the first sign of symptoms. Sometimes the signs of an infection can mimic those of asthma, such as cough. However, asthma doesn’t cause:
- sore throat
- muscle aches
Learning the difference between your asthma symptoms and infection signs can help you know when to stay home, drink extra fluids, and get the rest you need.
Some people experience asthma symptoms when they exercise, so they avoid physical exertion to prevent asthma triggers. But they’re missing an excellent opportunity to improve their lung health.
Daily exercise has several benefits, per the ALA. These include:
- increased lung capacity
- improved blood flow
- decreased airway inflammation
- higher endurance and stamina
- immune system support
If you have exercise-induced asthma attacks, your doctor can help you identify the reason. For example, it may simply be a fitness issue. If it’s because your asthma isn’t managed as well as it could be, a medication change may help.
The ALA recommends the following exercise strategies for people with asthma:
- Include a warmup first and cool down afterward.
- Cover your mouth and nose when exercising outside in cold weather.
- Check the air quality before you exercise outdoors and, if necessary, choose an indoor activity instead.
- Stop immediately if you experience chest discomfort such as pain, coughing, or shortness of breath. Use your inhaler and sit and relax.
If you have any health condition, asthma or otherwise, it’s advisable to check with your doctor before starting a new type of exercise.
The impact of diet on inflammation may influence the health of your lungs.
Inflammation isn’t the only factor affecting diet’s impact on lung function. Nutrients like carbohydrates use more oxygen and create more carbon dioxide, which may cause your lungs to work harder. This means that reducing carbs and replacing them with healthy fats may help you breathe more easily.
The ALA offers the following dietary advice:
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D boosts immunity and reduces airway inflammation, and low levels have been linked to increased chance of asthma attacks in both children and adults.
- Vitamin E. Vitamin E contains tocopherol which may help reduce wheezing and coughing.
Foods to avoid include:
- gas-causing items like beans, fried food, and carbonated drinks, which can make breathing more difficult
- sulfites, commonly found in dried fruits, which can increase asthma symptoms
- salicylates, in coffee, tea, herbs and spices, which can bother some people with asthma
If you have access to one, a nutritionist who specializes in asthma can help you create a meal plan designed for long-term lung health. A healthcare professional can also help.
Unmanaged asthma can result in long-term changes to your lungs and increase your chance of developing COPD and ACOS.
But you have some control over this outcome. Diet and exercise changes, medication adherence, and protection from pollution and infection can all keep your lungs healthy.