If you have asthma, you may be at increased risk of developing the bone disease osteoporosis. Asthma is a chronic condition that makes breathing difficult. During an asthma attack, tissues inside the airways swell and produce extra mucus, which clogs the airways. At the same time, the muscles surrounding the airways can clamp down and make airways even smaller. These things combine to make it hard for the air to move into and out of the lungs.
There is no cure for asthma, but many asthma symptoms can be controlled using a variety of medications. Some of the most effective medications are corticosteroids or glucocorticoids, which can be taken as a pill or can be inhaled. Unfortunately, these medications can also cause damage to your bones and lead to osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a condition that makes bones brittle and weak. Healthy bone is a combination of bone and small holes that looks similar to a honeycomb. Bone with osteoporosis has larger than normal holes with weak, brittle bone in between. The mineral calcium is a building block for bone. In a healthy person, new bone is constantly being grown to replace old bone. But when the body is low on calcium, bone growth slows as the mineral is pulled out of bones. This can leave bones weak and more likely to break.
When corticosteroids used to treat asthma are taken by mouth, they interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium from foods. They also cause the kidneys to flush more calcium out of the body and limit the amount of bone that is produced. Corticosteroids used as inhalers are safer, but can still cause damage to bones.
In addition to the use of medications, other factors can also make someone with asthma more prone to osteoporosis. Some people with asthma believe milk and other dairy products can trigger an asthma attack. As a result, they avoid calcium rich foods that could help protect their bones. Research has shown that dairy is not a risk for most people with asthma, unless they are allergic to dairy products. Children in particular need calcium because strong bones early in life add some protection against osteoporosis later in life.
Exercise is also important to healthy bones, but is often avoided by people with asthma to prevent asthma attacks. As much as possible, it is important for bone strength to participate in weight-bearing activities such as walking, jogging, dancing, or weight lifting.
With or without asthma, women are more prone than men to develop osteoporosis. This is due in part to loss of the hormone estrogen at menopause, which can increase the rate of bone loss. Some women choose to have hormone replacement therapy to help lower this risk. There are also medications that can help prevent further loss of bone and promote the growth of new bone.
If you have asthma, talk to your health care providers including your asthma doctor about the health of your bones. The bones in the wrist, spine, and hips are most likely to be damaged by osteoporosis. Your doctor can order a bone mineral density test to check the strength of your bones and monitor your skeleton for possible weakness that could lead to breaks.
Reviewed June 23, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton