Asthma is on the rise—and we’re paying for it. According to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control, asthma sets the U.S. economy back more than $80 billion each year, and, in truth, this figure is probably too low because it doesn’t consider untreated asthma.
The $80 billion total takes into account not only medical expenses but also missed workdays and deaths. The biggest portion of the costs was for prescription medications. In fact, with the annual medical cost of asthma totaling about $3,200 per person in the U.S., more than half of that is spent on prescription drugs.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at asthma, its prevalence and options for bringing down its cost using allergy treatment.
What is asthma?
Asthma is characterized by a person’s airways becoming inflamed and the production of extra mucus in those airways. As a result, the airways become constricted and clogged, making it difficult for people to breathe.
Why do so many people have asthma now?
According to the CDC, more than 25 million Americans have asthma, which equates to about 1 in 13 people having the disease. It is more prevalent in kids; while 7.7% of adults have asthma, 8.4% of children suffer from the disease. In fact, asthma is the leading chronic disease in children and the top reason for missed school days.
Asthma has been steadily rising in America since the 1980s, and a CDC report showed that the prevalence of asthma in the U.S. increased by nearly 30 percent between 2001 and 2011. Some segments of the population showed an even greater increase than that, including black children who saw their collective asthma rate rise by 50% in this 10-year time frame.
So why the increase? To date, science has no single answer, but let’s look at a few theories that may help explain the rise.
• The hygiene hypothesis. This has long been heralded as a possibility for rising asthma. This hypothesis states that as our standard of living has become more hygienic, our immune systems have lost some of their ability to discern between truly harmful things (like germs) and harmless things (like pollen). As a result, our immune systems release chemicals to “fight off” harmless allergens, and those chemicals trigger allergic reactions to include allergy-related asthma.
However, inconsistencies have been found that call this theory into question. For example, children living in poverty in Latin America were found to have higher asthma rates than more affluent children in Europe with greater access to and education about hygienic practices. Some people explain this seemingly contradictory finding by postulating that while too much sanitation truly can increase allergy-induced asthma, too little sanitation can cause childhood respiratory infections unrelated to allergies that may increase one’s risk for asthma. In other words, they stand by the hygiene hypothesis!
• Climate change. As things warm up on a global level, trees, grass and leaves pollinate for a longer period of time. This accounts for the increasing prevalence of allergies and can also account for increased asthma, since allergic inflammation often underlies asthma.
• Obesity. Obesity can trigger an inflammation response in the body. This can accelerate both heart disease and diabetes, and many people believe it increases someone’s risk for inflammation of the airways as well. Abdominal fat on the lungs may exacerbate people’s asthma symptoms. And even if obesity doesn’t cause asthma, it can certainly change the way people respond to its treatment. Obese patients often require more intensive steroid treatments to bring their asthma under control.
• Sedentary lifestyle. A decline in physical activity in America has been associated with increased asthma risks. Exercise helps to stretch both the lungs and bronchial tubes, which makes it easier to breathe. So even if someone already has asthma, regular exercise may be able to decrease symptoms.
How do we rein in the costs?
• Better monitoring. We credit both Socrates and Plato for emphasizing the importance of an “examined life.” We trust that these two great thinkers would extend that concept to asthma, specifically, to the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program’s guidelines that asthma must be better examined and monitored in order for it to be effectively managed.
According to these guidelines, patients with asthma should see their doctors regularly to track the ebb and flow of their symptoms and how well they are responding to certain therapies. Things like asthma diaries can help patients track information about what exacerbates their asthma and what helps it. This information is critical for health care providers as they make decisions about what therapies to recommend.
• Better self-management education. It ultimately falls to the asthma sufferer to manage his or her asthma, but many people fall down on the job because they simply don’t know the how’s or why’s of it. Every patient should be educated about the condition and what contributes to it. They should also be given a written asthma action plan with specific recommendations for managing the disease in their daily lives.
• Reduction of asthma triggers. Patients need to know what can contribute to their asthma—including pollen, pet dander, mold, dust, chemical irritants, etc.—so that they can avoid or minimize these triggers in their lives.
• Effective treatment. For the many cases where asthma is allergy-related, we wholeheartedly recommend allergy immunotherapy. What’s the point of loading your body with expensive medications with harmful side effects when you can reduce the underlying cause of the asthma with natural allergy treatment?
We recommend seeing an allergy doctor (or a family physician using AllergyEasy’s turnkey allergy treatment program) to get allergy tested. If you have allergies, you may be seeing other symptoms besides just the asthma. You may be experiencing allergic rhinitis, frequent ear or sinus infections, fatigue, headache, hives, eczema, etc. You may also notice that your symptoms get worse when you are exposed to things like pet dander or pollen. These are tips that your asthma may be allergy-related, and a test can help provide additional insight into your underlying allergies.
If you determine that you have allergies, you can ask your doctor about allergy immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is the only treatment that is capable of altering the underlying allergic disease—not just its symptoms. It is available through allergy shots or oral allergy drops (known as sublingual immunotherapy). Both work well, though many people are gravitating toward the sublingual immunotherapy drops because they are safer and, thus, can be administered at home rather than at the doctor’s office (which saves you time and hassle).
Asthma is taking a heavy toll on our country, but thankfully, there are ways to keep it in check. By adhering to the guidelines above, doctors and patients can work together to bring down costs and reduce symptoms.