What is asthma?

My brother had asthma when we were children. I remember he would have multiple inhalers. Blue ones, brown ones, one big one that looked like a rugby ball. And I never questioned it. He would cough at night or when we were playing sports, and my parents would dish out the appropriate relief in the form of this inhaler or that inhaler and he would get on with things. Simple. But I never understood what was happening. I suppose I should have been thankful that his lung complaint was relatively minor, as it could have been something a lot more dangerous – for example, see ‘what is the difference between lung cancer and mesothelioma?’ Now let’s get into what asthma does to the lungs.

Understanding asthma

When you breathe in, air enters your lungs. That’s not rocket science. However, in order for the air to reach the end goal of filling up the microscopic bubble-like sacs that deliver the oxygen into the bloodstream, the air must pass through an ever-narrowing series of ‘tubes’ that make up your airways into the lungs. These airways do not keep their structure thanks to supportive cartilage (like in your nose or ears), but instead owe their openness to tiny muscles. Herein lies the problem. When the lining of the lungs becomes irritated due to the presence of an allergen (e.g. dust, pollen), the muscles supporting the airways contract. Now, the lungs are naturally lined with sputum that slowly moves around inside the lungs by small hairs, effectively flushing out the lungs and keeping them clean. When the airways contract, the sputum has nowhere to go, resulting in coughing to try to clear the lungs.

What do inhalers do?

There are different treatments available for asthma. However, the two most common treatments are known the world over as the blue inhaler and the brown inhaler. 

The blue inhaler gives immediate relief from symptoms of asthma. The drug – which is delivered directly into the lungs – is designed to relax the muscles inside the airways, giving more room inside the lungs for air to enter and thus allowing the patient to breathe normally once more.

The brown inhaler is a little more complex, because you are required to use it once or twice per day (always follow the instructions and dosage outlined by your doctor) even when you are showing no signs of an asthma attack. That’s because the brown inhaler contains a steroid that strengthens the lungs, which should help to minimise the effects of future attacks.