The Pathophysiology Of Asthma

Asthma results from a tendency of the body to hyper-react to precipitants, which then causes inflammation of airways, excessive secretion of mucus and broncho-constriction. Understanding this process can help in controlling asthma.
The Pathophysiology of Asthma
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Asthma is one of most common chronic diseases afflicting mankind. It is difficult to cure and usually needs to be managed on a regular basis, with lifestyle changes, regular medication to control it and further treatment to take care of its exacerbations when they happen. Understanding the nature of the disease and how is develops can help in better understanding of the disease, and also help in preventing exacerbations.


Understanding Asthma

Asthma is one of the most persistent respiratory diseases, characterized by frequent episodes of cough and breathlessness that may range from mild and tolerable to life threatening in severity. It cannot

usually be cured, yet it is possible to live a healthy life by effectively managing it with the help of expert advice, medicines and knowledge.

Knowing about asthma and its pathophysiology, i.e. how it happens can help patients and their attendants prevent frequent flaring up of asthma.

Pathophysiology of Asthma

Asthma results from a combination of multiple factors. Those which play the most important role in the development of this disease are hypersensitivity or allergy, inflammation of airways, excess secretion of mucus and bronchial spasm.

Hypersensitivity of Airways

The most characteristic feature of an asthmatic patient is the hypersensitivity of his smaller airways, also called 'bronchioles' to any irritant. Even in normal people, body has its own ways of responding to an external particle that might reach these airways. However, in case of asthmatics, this reaction of any external particle or irritant is highly exaggerated. So the walls of the bronchioles (airways) respond even to harmless particles in such a way that they lead to cough and suffocation.

On being exposed to an irritant, the mucosal surface of the bronchioles reacts very strongly. The 'mast cells' in the epithelium of the mucosa secrete 'lymphokines' and 'cytokines' - substances that attract white blood cells like lymphocytes, eosinophils and macrophages to protect the body from the threat posed by this irritant particle. These cells come and secrete various kinds of enzymes that would usually kill bacteria and protect the body from it. However, in an asthmatic, this whole process is precipitated without any real threat and the destruction caused by frequent occurrences of such episodes gives rise to the disease.


Allergy is nothing but the hypersensitivity of the body to certain specific external material. Many patients of asthma are also allergic to many other things, and this tendency is also seen in their body in other forms. Asthma is often linked with allergy - both having similar pathophysiology.

Inflammation of Airways

The response of the airways and attracting lymphocytes and macrophages leads to secretion of digestive enzymes which create 'inflammation' or swelling of the bronchial mucosa. The collection of fluids and enzymes and damaged cells accumulate and are slowly digested by the body with the help of macrophages - all this leads to swelling and thickening of the surface layer of airways.

Excess Secretion of Mucus

In the airways, mucus serves to protect and clean them. In a normal person, mucus secretion may increase when there is a

need for cleaning the airways or in response to some external particles. In an asthmatic, the excess secretion of mucus results from the irritation caused by the hyper-responsiveness to irritants, and it is the body's attempt to clear the irritant. However, instead of helping in clearing, it actually leads to flooding of airways. Too much of mucus blocks the air passage itself and leads to cough and suffocation. It is also the cause of breathing difficulties that asthmatics face during episodes of worsening.

Bronchospasm: Constriction of Airways

The smaller airways have a thin layer of muscle tissue around them. The usual tendency of all muscles to irritation is constriction. The irritation of the bronchial mucosa and its hypersensitivity also leads to contraction of this layer of muscles thereby causing a spasm of the airway that makes the blockage of the air passage that much more severe. Bronchospasm makes matters much worse.

Precipitating & Triggering Events

Often an asthmatic attack is triggered by exposure to a substance to which the person is allergic or hypersensitive. Many a times, it may also be triggered off by a respiratory infection or an attack of  flu, that leads to bronchial mucosal reaction thereby triggering the whole chain of events that results in blocking of the air passages. Other factors that can contribute include smoking, air pollution and excessive weight.

Pathological Hypersensitivity Leads to Asthma

Thus, asthma results from a complex mechanism that involves a defect in body's response to external material as well as the presence of a trigger. Genetic factors play an important role, as there is a genetic predisposition for allergies that makes many patients of asthma vulnerable. At the same time, knowing how asthma actually happens can help one deal with in a more realistic way and also take necessary precautions like avoiding triggers of allergy and infection that can precipitate asthma.

From the pathophysiology of asthma, one can see that there is a vulnerability within the body of over-reacting to harmless precipitants that would not lead to any reaction in a normal person. Thus, it becomes important that for asthmatics to be aware of possible precipitants in any environment that they are being exposed to. Dust, pollen, dirt, high particulate material in air, temperature changes and infections are all possible triggers that can lead to worsening of asthma. Appropriate precautions to avoid or limit their exposure can help in better management of asthma.

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