Dangerous Relationships: Asthma and Substance Abuse

Asthma is an incurable, chronic lung condition characterized by inflammation and constriction (narrowing) in the passageways that transport life-giving oxygen into the body. Some people affected by the condition experience only sporadic or minor related health problems, while others experience moderate, severe or even potentially fatal complications. According to the results of a study review published in July 2013 in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, asthmatic individuals who abuse any one of a number of substances have clearly increased risks for developing a range of serious asthma-related complications.

Asthma Basics

The core symptoms of asthma are unusually inflamed tissues in the linings of the lungs’ passageways and an accompanying high degree of sensitivity to changes in the quality of the air entering these passageways. When something irritates the airways of an asthmatic person, he or she experiences a tightening of the muscles that control airway widening and narrowing. In turn, this tightening reduces the amount of oxygen that can pass into the lungs. To make things worse, swelling in the airway linings can also contribute to constriction of the normal oxygen flow, as can an associated buildup of mucus. Baseline forms of these symptoms are typically a daily reality for an individual affected by asthma. When a spike in baseline symptoms occurs, the individual experiences an acute (short-term) event called an asthma attack. In a worst-case scenario, the airway restriction triggered by a severe asthma attack can result in death. Roughly 25 million Americans (including 7 million children) have asthma, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute reports. Potential factors in developing the condition include a genetic predisposition for asthma, a genetic predisposition for allergy susceptibility, the development of certain viral illnesses or respiratory infections in early life and early life exposure to strong allergens. Most affected individuals develop asthma during childhood. Boys develop the condition more often than girls; however, men and women have roughly the same asthma risks.

Substance Abuse Basics

Substance abuse is the accepted term for the misuse of any substance that alters normal brain function, and thereby alters the everyday experience of human consciousness. Common targets for this misuse include alcohol, stimulant drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine, opioid drugs such as hydrocodone and heroin, inhalants, cannabis products (marijuana and hashish), LSD and other hallucinogens, tobacco and a range of drugs known collectively as sedative-hypnotics or tranquilizers. Repeated, regular use of any mind-altering substance can ultimately result in a chemical reliance or dependence on that substance. In turn, the development of chemical substance dependence opens the door for the establishment of a substance addiction. Together, substance abuse and substance addiction constitute a single mental health condition called substance use disorder.

Asthma-Related Risks

In the study review published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, researchers from three Italian institutions assessed the impact of substance abuse on people diagnosed with asthma. Specific substances of abuse included in the review were alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and nicotine-containing cigarette tobacco. After completing their assessment of previously conducted studies on the subject, the researchers concluded that asthma users affected by substance abuse experience asthma attacks at a significantly higher rate than asthma users unaffected by substance abuse. These individuals also have substantially higher chances of developing severe asthma symptoms during any given attack, have higher chances of developing potentially lethal symptoms during an attack and actually die from asthma at a higher rate than asthmatics who don’t abuse substances. In addition, substance-abusing asthmatics experience greater overall decreases in their normal lung capabilities and require a doctor’s care and/or hospitalization considerably more often.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the review published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases believe their findings demonstrate that substance abuse functions as a clear indicator for increased health risks in people affected by mild to severe asthma. In line with this conclusion, they believe that all doctors who work with asthma patients must take steps to uncover the presence of substance abuse in order to ensure the quality of care they provide and help safeguard their patients’ health. The gathering of the required information would likely take the form of a detailed, substance-related medical history and/or a questionnaire designed to identify current or recent involvement in the abuse of drugs or alcohol.

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