Diabetes can affect many parts of the body, including the heart, kidneys and nerves. What you may not know is that diabetes can also affect your lungs and can impact how well you breathe. Several lung conditions are linked with having diabetes, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), pneumonia and tuberculosis. Another common lung condition that may be attributed to having diabetes is asthma.
The American Lung Association defines asthma as “a lung disease that makes it harder to move air in and out of your lungs.” When you have asthma, the airways in the lungs are swollen or inflamed, and may lead to mucus production, making it hard for you to breathe. The airways are more sensitive to triggers such as the weather, pollution, pet dander, smoking, dust or chemicals.
Asthma affects people of all ages, and it can start in childhood. It may go away, but then reappear later in life. While asthma is a chronic condition that can be life-threatening, it can be managed with the right treatment plan, allowing people to live an active and healthy life.
It’s not entirely clear what causes asthma. Asthma tends to run in the family, but environmental factors can also be involved. Here’s what we know about possible causes:
African Americans and Puerto Ricans have a higher risk of asthma than people of other races or ethnicities. In children, boys are more likely to have asthma than girls, although in adults, women are more likely to have asthma than men.
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Struggling to breath is a scary experience for anyone, and having asthma puts you at risk for an “asthma attack” (also known as an asthma “flare-up”). During an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs swell and shrink. Mucus production is also increased, which can clog the airways. And, the muscles around the airways tighten up (called bronchospasm). The result is that less air can get in and out of your lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
Asthma varies in terms of severity and whether a person is exposed to allergens. Some people have asthma symptoms every day, while others have symptoms much less often. Symptoms can vary from person to person, as well. Typical signs and symptoms of asthma include:
Other conditions can cause similar symptoms, but with asthma, there are usually patterns. For example:
Your healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms, obtain a health history, do a physical exam and likely do some tests, such as a lung function test and a chest X-ray.
If you’ve been having breathing symptoms, it helps to keep a record of what they are, when they occur and what might be causing them to trigger. Bring your record to your appointment. In addition, let your provider know about any allergies you have, as well as a family history of asthma, allergies and eczema. Tell your provider about home or work exposure to environmental factors that can worsen asthma, such as pets, pollen, dust mites, tobacco smoke and chemicals that you are exposed to at work.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute lists the pulmonary tests that your provider may order include:
Asthma symptoms can be similar from person to person, but the causes and triggers can vary. It’s important to know what type of asthma you have in order for you and your provider to come up with an effective management plan. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology list the following as the most common types of asthma:
The treatment of asthma typically involves the use of a combination of long-term control medicines (e.g., inhaled or oral corticosteroids, inhaled beta-agonists, leukotriene modifiers, theophylline) and quick-relief medicines (e.g., short-acting beta agonists, long-acting muscarinic antagonists). Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, may be recommended to reduce your body’s response to allergens. Also, you can take lifestyle measures to help prevent and treat symptoms, such as allergy-proofing your home, avoiding tobacco smoke, and limiting exposure to chemicals, mold, etc.
A study published in the journal Diabetes Care in 2010 found that, out of 78,000 adults with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the incidence of asthma, as well as COPD, pulmonary fibrosis and pneumonia was higher compared to adults without diabetes. It’s thought that people with diabetes have impaired lung function, which is a chronic complication of diabetes.
One potential reason for a higher incidence of asthma in those with type 2 diabetes is the prevalence of obesity. Obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes as well as asthma. However, obesity aside, people with diabetes may have a higher risk of asthma due to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, both of which are associated with asthma. Interestingly, metformin, a medication commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes, is associated with a reduced risk of asthma exacerbations.
Some researchers also speculate that a cause of reduced lung function in people with diabetes is inflammation. Whatever the cause, lung function can worsen as blood glucose levels increase.
Want to learn more about diabetes and lung health? Read “Diabetes and Lung Health” and try your hand at our “Diabetes and Your Lungs” quiz.
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