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Psychosomatic Smells — Thoughts of an Asthma Attack

Jul 09 2015 Comments 0

Asthma affects 20% of households in the UK. In fact, an average of three people die every day from an asthma attack. We don’t know what causes asthma and there is no cure at present — all we can do is manage the condition and treat the symptoms.

Helping asthmatics to manage the condition is the subject of much research — and a recent study has found something that could lead to reduced symptoms for asthmatics.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways to and from the lungs. Asthmatics have impaired breathing as the bronchi (airways to the lungs) are inflamed and susceptible to an environmental trigger that can cause an asthma attack — it is the attack that can be fatal.

If an environmental trigger is likely to set off an asthma attack — pets, polluted atmospheres, pollen and cold weather are common triggers — then an asthmatic has to avoid the situation or be prepared for a possible attack.

Triggers and attacks?

People are susceptible to different triggers — although some triggers are common to many asthma suffers — and a common trigger is scent or fragrance. A trigger is simply something that causes even more irritation to their airways — which in turn leads to the body reacting:

  • the chest tightens causing the airways to narrow,
  • the lining on the airways gets inflamed, adding to the narrowing of the airways, and
  • phlegm builds up, again narrowing the airways.

As the airways become narrow and inflamed, it becomes harder to breathe and the asthma symptoms — tight chest, wheezing and coughing — become worse. If the symptoms cannot be relieved or get worse, then the asthma sufferer could be having an asthma attack and it is important that you know what to do in such an eventuality.

To help people with asthma to control their symptoms it is important that we know as much as we can about our reaction to environmental triggers.

Negative expectations tested

A recent study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research (Asthma and odors: The role of risk perception in asthma exacerbation) looked at how an asthma sufferer’s thinking can affect their symptoms — the researchers wanted to understand about the physical and psychological effects of triggers, in this case a fragrance.

In the study asthmatics were exposed to a fragrance — some were told it would help their asthma, whilst the others were told it would trigger an attack. The people expecting an attack had increased airway inflammation and reported that the fragrance didn’t smell nice. The other group reported the opposite.

Cristina Jaén, one of the lead authors, said ‘It’s not just what you smell, but also what you think you smell.’ The effects of airborne particles — like fragrances — on our health are discussed in this article, Volatile Organic Compound Determination in Health-related Research: A Review.

The team want to find the biological mechanism that links an asthmatic’s expectations to airway inflammation — and also to see if the opposite effect takes place. Think positive?

Image Source: Inhaler via NIAID
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