01/06/2016 8:28 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Why We Shouldn't Breathe Easy Over India's Rising Asthma Burden

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 11: A child takes precautions against air pollution as fire crackers add to the smog and air pollution on Diwali on November 11, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Air quality in the Capital deteriorated alarmingly on Diwali night as pollution levels spiked as much as 23 times higher than normal in arguably the most polluted spot of the city. Experts say these particulate matters which are way above the permissible limit are extremely dangerous for people suffering from asthma and other respiratory and cardiac problems, and also for children and the elderly. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airway that affects approximately 30 million people in India. The prevalence of asthma in Indian children has continued to increase over the last decade. Despite this significant burden, asthma is frequently not taken seriously because it is considered to not be fatal. This, however, is a misnomer. According to estimates of the World Health Organisation (WHO), of the 300 million people who suffered from asthma in the year 2005, nearly 25,000 lost their lives due to the condition. Additionally, undiagnosed and untreated asthma has several social, economic, psychological and physical consequences, many of which are exacerbated in the poor.

A combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible for causing asthma. External factors like air pollution, indiscriminate used of fossil fuels and rapid urbanisation have contributed to the increasing rates of asthma in children. Air pollution, in particular, is a major challenge with cities like Delhi recording PM 2.5 virus levels over 10 times higher than the limit prescribed by the WHO. However, it is not just outdoor air pollution, impurity of indoor air is also a cause for concern. Curofy, India's largest community of doctors, conducted a poll which revealed that over 80% of participants believed that air pollution was the single most important factor behind the surge in asthma in children.

Reducing the burden of asthma requires multiple interventions in the areas of energy, transport as well as food and agriculture. Greater access is needed to clean cook stoves and renewable energy sources to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels. Measures to strengthen public transport and create an environment that makes it conducive for people to walk and cycle are also important. With respect to food and agriculture, local and sustainable food systems must be promoted. Moreover, people need to be encouraged to reduce the consumption of red meat.


Even though asthma is not fully curable, lifestyle modifications can keep it under control. Some steps that are known to be helpful include reducing exposure to polluted areas and allergens, having a balanced diet, quitting smoking and using air purifiers. Undertaking regular exercise is also important. A recent review of studies conducted in India, Europe and the United States has shown that yoga might provide symptomatic relief to people with asthma, however, a larger number of high-quality studies are needed for the results to be considered conclusive.

Parents of young children need to be especially vigilant as asthma in children might not show the typical symptoms like coughing, wheezing and tightness in the chest. Asthma manifests differently in every child and hence it is important for parents to identify the triggers that can set off or worsen an asthma attack in their child. It is also crucial for parents to minimise their child's exposure to allergens, monitor the child's lung function and ensure that medication is taken at the right time. The child and people around him or her must also be made aware of the condition so that they can take the right steps in case of an emergency.

A large number of children and young people are suffering from asthma and it is a bigger cause for concern than we currently imagine it to be. It is essential that we take steps to minimise environmental pollution, which among other factors, is one of the most important reasons for the rise in asthma over the last few years. Only this can allow us to protect our younger generation from the consequences and complications of asthma.

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