Asthma is an acute intermittent medical condition that causes inflammation and subsequent narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which are the airways in the lungs. The combination of effects makes breathing difficult. Although it can start at any time, the condition often develops in childhood and most people grow out of it. The exact reason some people develop asthma is not known, but there does appear to be a genetic component.
There are a few different classifications of asthma based on what tends to cause a flare-up of symptoms.
- Allergic Asthma: Asthma symptoms develop after exposure to an allergen.
- Non-allergic Asthma: Symptoms may occur due to other unspecified or undetermined irritants.
- Exercised-induced Asthma: In people with exercise-induced asthma, their airways become sensitive due to physical exercise.
- Cold-induced Asthma: In people with cold-induced asthma, their airways become sensitive due to cold temperature often in combination with exercise.
- Occupational Asthma: Symptoms of asthma may develop due to worked related exposure, such as dust or chemicals, which irritate the airways.
Symptoms occurrence and severity can be quite variable. Although it is rare, a severe episode of asthma can sometimes even lead to death.
The main symptoms of asthma is shortness of breath. As the airways become inflamed and narrow, they restrict how much air can move in and out. When the airways narrow, it can cause a wheezing sound typically while exhaling. The narrowing or constriction of the airways can become so severe it can lead to respiratory failure. In addition to wheezing and shortness of breath, asthma can also cause the following symptoms:
- Increased mucous production
- Chest tightness
If your asthma is not controlled and you’re using your quick-relief medications frequently (4 or more times per week), you should see your doctor. Difficult to manage asthma may be referred to an Allergist or Pulmonologist. If an acute asthma attack symptoms become severe, and you are having trouble breathing, call an ambulance and seek immediate medical care.
How is Asthma Diagnosed?
Asthma is diagnosed based on your symptoms, medical history including allergies, family history, and exam, along with certain pulmonary (respiratory) function tests.
A lung function test, which is referred to as spirometry or a pulmonary function test measures the volume of air you inhale and exhale out of your lungs, along with how forceful you can blow air out.
Treatment of asthma involves both prevention of symptoms and treating acute symptoms. The medicines come in various forms such as liquids, pills, or inhalers. The doctor will determine which medicine based on how often and for how long you suffer symptoms.
Asthma is treated with various types of medications including fast-acting bronchodilators and long-term maintenance medications. It is important patients understand the difference between the two types of medications.
Fast-acting bronchodilators: Fast-acting bronchodilators, also called quick-relief medications (act within 5-15 minutes), are used to treat acute symptoms. These types of medications act by relaxing the smooth muscles of the airways resulting in dilatation. Quick-relief medications are often taken via an inhaler or a nebulizer. Most people need an inhaler 1 to 3 times a week, however when asthma symptoms worsen, more doses might be needed and this suggests a need for the longer-term maintenance medications. Side effects of fast-acting bronchodilators include increased heart rate and shakiness.
Long-term asthma maintenance medication: Maintenance medications are different from quick-relief drugs. They are taken on a daily basis even if symptoms are not present to prevent flare-ups. They can include a classification of medication called inhaled corticosteroids, which are used to decrease inflammation. Side effects of inhaled corticosteroids can include hoarseness and an oral yeast infection.
Preventing Asthma Flare-ups
Although there is no cure for asthma, there are ways to decrease symptom flare-ups. Patients should take an active role in the prevention of symptoms. For instance, one of the most important things you can do if you have asthma is identify what tends to trigger an asthma attack. For example, common allergens, such as pollen, dust, molds and pet dander, may cause symptoms in some people. For other individuals, symptoms are triggered by cold weather, cigarette smoke or emotional stress. Once you figure out what is causing a flare-up of symptoms, do your best to avoid your triggers.
It’s also critical to take medications recommended by your doctor, which are in your asthma action plan. For instance, if maintenance medications are prescribed they are taken even when symptoms are not present.
Understanding Your Asthma Action Plan
It’s important to develop a plan to prevent and treat symptoms before they become severe. That’s where an asthma action plan comes in. An asthma action plan often includes a list of medications to take and when to take them including when to add medications if symptoms get worse. It may also include monitoring your symptoms in part by using a peak flow meter. A peak flow meter is a small device which you forcefully blow into to measure the amount of air you can exhale. Using a peak flow meter is one tool to help you determine if symptoms are becoming worse and if quick-relief medications are needed.
Symptom prevention? — Asthma can be prevented by avoiding the triggers that cause or aggravate your symptoms. Common triggers include:
- Animal dander
- Cigarette smoke
- Plants and pollen
- Respiratory infections
Asthma and Pregnancy?
Discuss with your doctor but most asthma medicines are considered safe to take during pregnancy.
Asthma often first starts in childhood. Children with asthma are at risk for missing school and activities, such as sports. But with proper management, children with asthma can live normal lives.
Symptoms of asthma in children are the same as those in adults but may also include frequent colds or lung infections. Children may also develop an increased respiratory rate and retractions. Retractions are a sign of respiratory distress and involve the skin around the chest, ribs or collarbone sinking in when your child inhales.
Treatment for childhood asthma is similar to adults. Most quick-relief medications are approved for children. If needed, your doctor will also provide information on which long-term maintenance medications are approved for children.
One essential component of treating asthma in children is education. Parents and children should become educated and ways to prevent and treat symptoms. For example, parents should identify and reduce their child’s asthma triggers. Also, teach your child how to recognize symptoms early and use their inhaler.
It’s also helpful to inform teachers and coaches about your child’s asthma so they are aware your child may need to use their inhaler or avoid certain things. Lastly, consider having your child immunized against the seasonal flu each year. Children with asthma are at an increased risk for complications from the flu.