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What is Airway Inflammation?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Airway inflammation is a state of irritation in the airways where the immune system responds to a perceived threat and causes swelling, itching, redness, and other symptoms. A number of respiratory diseases are associated with inflammation of the airway, either as a symptom or cause. Treatment options are available to reduce the inflammation and prevent future episodes, with the goal of keeping the patient's airways clear, eliminating breathing problems, and addressing other issues.

In airway inflammation, the immune system identifies a threat and signals a cascading series of reactions inside the tissue of the airways. Mast cells release histamine, a chemical compound that relaxes the blood vessels and contracts the smooth muscle in the airways. A flood of chemicals rush to the site. The airways start to swell and constrict and the patient has trouble breathing. Patients may also experience a burning, itching, or irritated sensation. If a doctor looks into the airways, they appear red and tender.

The inflammatory response helps the body respond to threats, but can be dangerous when it is extreme. Inflammation of the airway can occur in response to exposure to particulates like pollen, pollutants, allergens, and other substances. The patient may start to cough and wheeze, and sometimes the airways close off altogether. If the inflammation becomes chronic, fluid can fill the airways and the patient may develop tissue damage leading to scars, open sores, and other tissue changes.

Patients with asthma experience rapid onset airway inflammation. Chronic inflammation can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and people may also develop inflamed airways as a result of an underlying infection like bronchitis or pneumonia. Smoking and occupational exposure to smoke and chemicals can also be culprits. Along with airway obstruction, patients may have runny eyes and noses, blotchy skin, and other symptoms a doctor can use to find out more about why the patient is not feeling well.

Immediate treatment for an inflamed airway can include antihistamines to blunt the immune system's response, steroids to reduce pain and swelling, and breathing treatments to keep the airways open. Some patients may require intubation, where the airway is secured with a breathing tube to make sure the patient gets enough air. Once the initial crisis is over, the patient can discuss options for preventing future episodes. Long-term medication may be necessary to control the inflammation, and lifestyle changes like avoiding allergens or changing the exercise routine can be helpful as well.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Aug 29, 2014

When I was in high school, the physical education teacher would make us run a lap around the baseball and football fields before starting class. Most of the time, I came in last. I could feel my throat closing up and I couldn't get enough breath to keep running comfortably. Some of the other students made fun of me because they thought I was completely out of shape.

I later looked up all the causes of inflammation in the airway, and discovered there were several different asthma types, including "exercise-induced asthma". When I was running in the open field, there were all sorts of weeds and grass clippings releasing pollen into the air. Once the airway inflammation started, I couldn't do anything to stop it.

If I ran laps indoor, I was fine. I told the instructor about my problems with asthma and hay fever, and he let me do my running warm-up inside the gym from then on. It's a scary feeling when you can't get enough breath and it feels like your throat is going to close up completely.

By Cageybird — On Aug 28, 2014

My cousin will develop an allergic airway inflammation whenever certain weeds are in bloom. If she spends any time in her backyard during the early spring, she's likely to start wheezing and coughing. Usually a liquid allergy medication will help reduce the swelling in her throat , but there were a few times when her husband had to rush her to the emergency room for an antihistamine shot and respiratory therapy.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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