Asthma is a very common disease among Americans, with some studies indicating that as many as 8% of Americans have it (1). It is a disease that affects a person’s airways, causing them to narrow and making it more difficult to breathe air through them normally. It is chronic, and requires that people who have it remain with an inhaler or on daily medication their entire lives to make sure that they do not experience such complications as wheezing, lung infections, or even respiratory failure. It can be a truly debilitating disease, causing people to limit their activities or be hospitalized when they experience flares.
Asthma does not affect all populations equally. For example, hospitalizations for asthma are more common among Latino children than they are among white children. Even among Latino people, asthma affects different ethnicities in different ways. Mexican Americans have a lower rate of asthma than Cuban American children. Puerto Rican children have the highest rate of asthma among Latinos and are also much more likely to die from complications of asthma (2).
These differences can be attributed to many factors. Genes may play a role in the development of asthma, but a very important cause of the disease and its complications include various environmental exposures. Air pollution in cities and tobacco smoke lead to it, and obesity and diet have also been found to be causal. Allergens can cause or trigger asthma, and these can include dust mites, animal dander, mold, and some outdoor weeds and grasses. The Latino population certainly has differences in all of these triggers among themselves and when compared with other populations. Poverty and access to health care may significantly influence which of those exposures are around someone enough to cause issues with breathing and the development of asthma (1).
Many of you may have asthma or know people with asthma, and it is important for you to be aware of factors that can contribute to someone’s experience with the disease. Certain allergens and activity may bring about asthma symptoms, so it may be best to avoid whatever is found to trigger them if at all possible or have an inhaler handy to use if the trigger is unavoidable. Symptoms may appear or worsen with certain illnesses such as a cold or the flu, which is why it is recommended for people with asthma or any other breathing difficulty to get the flu vaccine yearly. Similarly, exposure to tobacco smoke either directly or secondhand can cause flares in those with asthma and should thus be avoided.
If someone you know is feeling short of breath and is wheezing and coughing, encourage them to visit their primary care provider as soon as they can. If they have asthma, an inhaler may be all they need to start breathing normally again.
1. Zahran HS, Bailey C. Factors associated with asthma prevalence among racial and ethnic groups – United States, 2009–2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. J Asthma. 2013;50:583–589.
2. Homa DM, Mannino DM, Lara M. Asthma mortality in U.S. Hispanics of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban heritage, 1990-1995. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2000 Feb;161(2 Pt 1):504-9
Adrian Martinez is a Puerto Rican born in California and raised in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Florida. He graduated in 2014 from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Biology and is currently a first-year medical student attending the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He is on the executive board of the school’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) and hopes to one day specialize in Emergency Medicine.