Few moments are more panic-inducing than when trying to catch your breath and being unable to do so. That is a feeling that can plague people who have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A new breakthrough from Rutgers and Yale School of Medicine, though, could help people with these lung conditions breathe easier.
Researchers at Rutgers and the Yale School of Medicine found that people who have asthma or COPD have a specific protein found in their lungs that actually leaks out a tiny substance into the bloodstream that works to restrict their breathing instead of allowing their airways to relax. Instead of keeping the substance, called cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), in the muscles of the lungs, the substance makes its way into the bloodstream. When those muscle cells lose cAMP, it means they are more likely to constrict, which closes down the airways and can worsen the symptoms of asthma and COPD.
The good news is that a simple blood test now will allow medical professionals to determine if a person has this substance in their blood. That means they will be able to better diagnose the chronic lung conditions of asthma or COPD and possibly change or narrow down the treatment of symptoms.
The findings were published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology in October 2021. In addition to having a better tool to diagnose lung conditions, researchers can now begin to target therapies and medications that can help plug this leak and allow people with asthma and COPD to open their airways more easily.
Asthma, COPD, or is it both?
Both asthma and COPD are marked by the inability to breathe after exertion and bouts of coughing. COPD is often broken down into two conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. While asthma and COPD have similarities, a doctor can determine which one you might have based on the symptoms you are experiencing, your medical history, a physical examination, and an analysis of test results.
One distinguishing symptom is a phlegm-producing cough each morning, which often marks a type of COPD called chronic bronchitis. On the other hand, sporadic moments of wheezing and tightness of the chest, particularly at night, is more common in people who have asthma. Additionally, people with asthma are more likely to have allergies such as hay fever or eczema.
The cause of the two conditions also varies. Almost invariably, COPD is found in people who have a long history of smoking. Asthma, on the other hand, occurs in non-smokers as well as smokers, and smoking can severely worsen asthma.
People who smoke often can suffer from both asthma and COPD at the same time. People who have both conditions at the same time are said to have asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS). The symptoms of ACOS include difficulty breathing, excess mucus, a feeling of tiredness, persistent coughing, frequent shortness of breath, and wheezing. ACOS is not a separate disease from asthma and COPD, but rather it provides a common name for doctors to use for the situation where someone is dealing with both conditions at the same time. When doctors know what exactly is happening with a person, they are better able to target treatments and manage symptoms that may come up in either or both of the conditions.
Treating asthma and COPD
While there is no direct cure for asthma or COPD, several types of medications can help address the symptoms and slow the progression of the condition. They are:
- Low-dose inhaled corticosteroids (ICS): This is a common medicine used to control asthma by addressing the ongoing inflammation found in the lungs and airways. An example of this is a rescue inhaler, which is used during an asthma attack to open up the airways.
- Long-acting bronchodilator (LABA): This drug is a medicine that offers long-term control for keeping airways open for anywhere between 12 and 24 hours. This medication is rarely, if ever, used on its own and typically is paired with a medication that works to reduce inflammation in the lungs and airways.
- Long-acting muscarinic agonist (LAMA): This drug is used to treat the symptoms of COPD. LAMAs work to reduce the amount of mucus the lungs are producing and prevents the airways and lungs from tightening.
No matter your breathing problems, work with your healthcare provider to determine what remedies will help you most. This new research may open even more doors to medications and/or lifestyle changes that will help ease your breathing.
Written by Sheena McFarland