Asthma attack! Nosy bacteria could be to blame

You have been colonized by bacteria since the day you were born. Yes, you are the breeding ground for a multitude of tiny organisms. In fact, bacteria outnumber your own cells by 10 to 1!

But before you drench yourself in hand sanitizer to get rid of these little beings, it’s important to note that not all bacteria are bad.

Some good bacteria that live in your gut actually help you digest food. Other good bacteria also live in food like yogurt and milk.

But in a world of good and evil, we do have bacteria that rather complicate our lives and cause us more harm than good.

Meet Staphylococcus aureus, a seemingly innocent-looking bacterium. S aureus likes to live on your salty skin and in mucosal membranes like your nostrils. This bacterium isn’t always pathogenic, which means it doesn’t always cause disease; however, it can secrete a toxin called that could be the true culprit for causing illness.

These enterotoxins can be found in undercooked or mishandled food, which can cause food poisoning. Beyond causing explosive bowel movement due to a bad burrito, enterotoxins can actually be inhaled, especially if a colony of S aureus lives in your nose.

Herein lies the newest medical mystery – can S aureus enterotoxins cause some kind of respiratory damage like asthma?

Science says… maybe!

You may have already heard of asthma as nearly 1 in 12 people in the United States have it1. Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that tightens airways, which causes wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and general shortness of breath. Asthma may develop during childhood or in adulthood. It could be lifelong and can be worsened by allergens (i.e. grass, pollen, mold, dust mites). Current treatments exist to control asthma symptoms, but there’s no proven way get rid of it.

Fortunately, researchers like Dr. Meghan Davis at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are trying to solve this problem by turning to S aureus for more information on its toxins and how they relate to asthma.

Using data from a study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Dr. Davis and her colleagues found interesting trends between asthma and S aureus.

Younger generations aged 6-30 had a greater risk of more severe asthma symptoms if S aureus colonized their nostrils; however, this wasn’t the case for older adults aged 31-85.

Because other factors play into asthma later in life such as other diseases and environmental exposures, it’s hard to determine a direct link between S aureus and asthma in late adulthood.

However, evidence shows children and young adults have a higher risk of contracting asthma and have worsening symptoms when they are colonized by S aureus during childhood. As one of the first studies to establish a difference in asthma susceptibility between the old and the young, Dr. Davis’ research could be valuable in prevention efforts.

But!

We must always take into consideration the genetic predispositions everyone has to getting asthma, including where they live and what they do. Asthma is a multi-faceted disease, meaning it has many causes and contributors, so finding a cure-all solution for it may be a little far-fetched. But in the world of science, knowledge is valuable and every little scientific discovery helps.

We may not be able to douse ourselves in hand sanitizer to be completely bacteria free, (and living in a hazmat suit all your life could be rather inconvenient) but we can learn about the things bacteria do to us to better protect ourselves.

If we know children are more likely to get asthma and have worsening symptoms if they are colonized by S aureus, we can be more aware of the dangers these bacteria can cause in our homes and in our bodies.

Needless to say, we’re learning more about asthma and its causes than we ever knew before. Someday, we’ll know how to best inform people on how to stay asthma-free. So enjoy the little bacteria that live on you… but if any of them get out of line and cause you problems, you have full permission to ask your doctor how to best annihilate them.

Stay healthy!

1 American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (2015).

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