To Your Health

Treatments and causes of asthma attacks

Q. During a surgical procedure requiring anesthesia I was unable to breathe for a short while, which called a halt to the operation. My neighbor who is a nurse says it sounds like a bronchospasm and it could be related to asthma. I seem to remember that some asthma attacks are brought on by stress. Is this true, and are there nutrients that might safeguard me from a future attack?

A. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects 15 million people in the United States, about 5 million of them children. This makes it the most common chronic disease of childhood.

There are two major components of asthma. One is very noticeable, which is the wheezing, coughing, and choking that most people recognize as an asthma attack or bronchospasm. The second part of asthma is much quieter. It is the inflammation that is always present but not always obvious. Part of asthma involves a chronic inflammation in the membranes of the lungs, which become swollen and full of mucus. That makes it harder for the lungs to do their job of exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. In addition, during an asthma attack, the muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes in the lungs contract, narrowing these airways and making it hard to breathe.

Various triggers, including stressful life events, can bring on bouts of asthma. Researchers tracking the frequency and severity of asthma attacks recently published their results in the December 2004 issue of Thorax. Subjects averaged two major stressful life events during the 18-month study, and these stresses had both immediate and delayed effects. In the 48 hours following each stressful event the risk of experiencing an asthma attack increased nearly fivefold. After the first two days, there was another spike of increased risk about five to seven weeks later, when the risk of another attack nearly doubled.

A study in England published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in May 2002 concluded that people who got about 480 milligrams of magnesium a day had better lung capacity and were less prone to breathing problems than people getting only about 200 milligrams of magnesium a day. Studies show that most people fall short of the recommended 400mg per day of magnesium. Magnesium supplements are considered safe for people with normal kidney function, and magnesium is sometimes given intravenously for an acute asthma attack.

A Harvard Medical School study found that smokers who got at least 200mg of vitamin C a day did better on tests of lung capacity. Vitamin C apparently shields lungs from the damaging effects of the chemicals in cigarette smoke, and may likewise protect from the environmental chemicals that we must all contend with these days. If you are one of those people who are particularly sensitive to environmental chemicals, it is quite possible that the anesthetic you received during surgery threatened your body and represented the sort of stress that could trigger a bronchospasm.

Vitamin supplements for infants under six months of age call for a word of caution. There is some evidence that vitamin supplements increase the risk of asthma and food allergies. Babies should have nothing but breast milk for the first six months or more, and rather than give the vitamin supplements to the baby, which adds to the risk of asthma, the nursing mother should take the supplements.

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