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Disease & Condition

Asthma

Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

signs and symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu

When to see a doctor

Seek emergency treatment

Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Work with your doctor to determine what to do when your signs and symptoms worsen — and when you need emergency treatment. Signs of an asthma emergency include:

  • Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
  • No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler, such as salbutamol
  • Shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity

Asthma triggers

Exposure to various irritants and substances that trigger allergies (allergens) can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. Asthma triggers are different from person to person and can include:

  • Airborne allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches and dust mites
  • Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
  • Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma)
  • Cold air
  • Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
  • Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen
  • Strong emotions and stress
  • Sulfites and preservatives added to some types of foods and beverages, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat

Risk factors

A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:

  • Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with asthma
  • Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis or allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
  • Being overweight
  • Being a smoker
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution
  • Exposure to occupational triggers, such as chemicals used in farming, hairdressing and manufacturing

Complications

Asthma complications include:

  • Signs and symptoms that interfere with sleep, work or recreational activities
  • Sick days from work or school during asthma flare-ups
  • Permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes (airway remodeling) that affects how well you can breathe
  • Emergency room visits and hospitalizations for severe asthma attacks
  • Side effects from long-term use of some medications used to stabilize severe asthma

Proper treatment makes a big difference in preventing both short-term and long-term complications caused by asthma.

Tests and diagnosis

Physical exam

Tests to measure lung function

You may also be given lung (pulmonary) function tests to determine how much air moves in and out as you breathe. These tests may include:

  • This test estimates the narrowing of your bronchial tubes by checking how much air you can exhale after a deep breath and how fast you can breathe out.
  • Peak flow. A peak flow meter is a simple device that measures how hard you can breathe out. Lower than usual peak flow readings are a sign your lungs may not be working as well and that your asthma may be getting worse. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to track and deal with low peak flow readings.

Lung function tests often are done before and after taking a medication called a bronchodilator (brong-koh-DIE-lay-tur), such as albuterol, to open your airways. If your lung function improves with use of a bronchodilator, it’s likely you have asthma.

Prevention

  • Follow your asthma action plan
  • Get vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia
  • Identify and avoid asthma triggers
  • Monitor your breathing
  • Identify and treat attacks early
  • Take your medication as prescribed
  • Pay attention to increasing quick-relief inhaler use

 

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