What is Asthma?
Asthma is an inflammatory condition of the airways that causes the airways to narrow, swell, and produce mucus. In the United States alone, 7.7% of the adult population and 9.4% of children have been diagnosed with asthma. About half of those who have asthma were diagnosed in childhood.
Asthma cannot be cured; however, it is a condition that can be managed.
Causes of Asthma:
While the exact cause of asthma is unknown, it is thought that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are responsible. Factors that increase the likelihood of asthma are:
- Family history
- Certain respiratory infections
- Allergies, which may have been inherited
- Contact with allergens or infectious agents during infancy
- Exposure to tobacco smoke during gestation or childhood
- Low birth weight and/or premature birth
- Exposure to chemicals (such as on the job)
Triggers of an Asthma Attack:
Asthma attacks can be triggered by certain activities or exposures:
- Irritants such as dust, fumes, or pollution
- Exercise or strenuous activity
- Tobacco smoke
- Pet dander or fur
- Mites or other insects
- Mold or mildew
- Strong emotions that can cause hyperventilation
Symptoms of Asthma:
Asthma symptoms can be moderate or severe and occur with varying degrees of frequency. Some sufferers may only experience attacks occasionally, while others may experience asthma attacks daily or over several days. Symptoms can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness of the chest
- Chest pain
- Audible wheezing sound when breathing
- Attacks of coughing, especially when ill or exposed to allergens
- Marked skin retraction around the ribs when taking a breath
- Flaring of nostrils (indicating difficulties taking a breath)
- Unusual breathing pattern
- Interruptions in breathing
The above symptoms may also indicate Reactive Airway Disease (RAD), which is an asthma-like condition that is usually diagnosed in children under the age of 6, a population that is difficult to diagnosis as asthmatic. Approximately 30% of children with RAD develop asthma later in life.
Asthma symptoms that indicate an emergency situation for which immediate medical attention should be sought are:
- Blue tinge to face or lips
- Severe difficulty with breathing
- Severe chest pain
- Increased pulse
- Decreased level of awareness during an asthma attack
- Shortness of breath that is causing anxiety
Diagnosis of Asthma:
Asthma is diagnosed by a doctor based on family medical history, a physical exam (including listening to the lungs), and any or all of the following tests:
- Allergy tests
- X-rays of the chest
- Lung function (to identify ease of inhalation and exhalation, along with how well the air circulates in the body)
- Arterial blood gas test, which measures levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
- Measuring peak flow (how much air is being taken in during inhalation)
The doctor will also determine the severity of your asthma as well as the proper course of treatment.
Treatment for Asthma:
Asthma is usually a chronic condition that is managed with medications.
A "rescue" inhaler (bronchodilators) can be given for use as needed when asthma symptoms arise, and many individuals will use a preventative inhaler medication, as well.
Treatments for asthma may include:
- Inhaled corticosteroids
- Oral medications
- Rescue inhalers for use during an attack
- Allergy treatments
- Bronchial thermoplasty for severe cases that cannot be controlled by other methods
- Breathing treatments
Tips for Living with Asthma:
Find a medical doctor who specializes in asthma. They provide treatment and can help you put together an asthma action plan.
Know your triggers. Pay attention to what triggers your asthma symptoms and take steps to avoid them – this may include keeping home and car windows shut, remaining inside when outdoor air quality worsens, or showering and changing your clothes after a period of time outdoors.
Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.
If medications are involved in your asthma treatment, be sure to take them just as your doctor prescribed.
Keep track of your symptoms, when they occur, and what triggers them. Doing so will help you notice if your symptoms are worsening so that you can take steps to prevent an attack.
A device called a peak flow meter can help you detect narrowing of your airways well before symptoms arise. Your doctor may instruct you to blow into the meter to check your airways.
Your healthcare specialist may also divide your peak flow numbers into “zones.” The zones are generally divided in to green (safe), yellow (caution), and red (emergency).
When you have asthma, a simple cold or some other common respiratory infection can quickly become serious. To avoid getting sick, remember to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, get your vaccinations, and try to avoid crowds during the peak cold and flu seasons.
Be sure to keep in contact with and talk to your doctor about your asthma symptoms, medications, management plan, as well as any questions or concerns you might have.
Take an asthma self-management class offered by the American Lung Association. There may be one in your area.
Hotlines for Asthma:
American Lung Association: 1-800-548-8252
Asthma UK: 0800-121-62-44
Additional Resources for Asthma:
The CDC's informational page on asthma, including podcasts and videos in the FAQ.
Environmental Protection Agency - brochures and other downloadable information for children and parents of children with asthma.
American Lung Association - in-depth resources, research, treatment options and more information about asthma.
American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology - information about living, managing, and controlling asthma in both children and adults.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America - a not-for-profit organization founded in 1953, is the leading patient organization for people with asthma and allergies, and the oldest asthma and allergy patient group in the world.
The Asthma Society of Canada offers information and educational resources for asthma sufferers in Canada.
The Canadian Lung Association - detailed information about asthma and tips for people with asthma.
Asthma UK is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and support for individuals with asthma in the UK.