Asthma

What is asthma?

Asthma is a common breathing disorder. The symptoms may come and go but the problem is always there. Asthma cannot be cured but it can be controlled and people with asthma can live normal lives.

The air passages to the lung are inflamed.

Inflamed airways are sensitive. The bronchial tubes react to many things, such as allergens (pollen, dust mites, animals), infections, smoke, exercise and weather changes.

The airways can become narrow at times and make it hard to breathe.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

The main symptoms of asthma are:

  • Cough
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

Not all people with asthma wheeze. For some, cough is the main symptom and often occurs following exercise or at night. Many young children wheeze but do not appear to be short of breath or in distress. Others with asthma become very tight and have to work hard to breathe. It’s important to know that treatment can reverse asthma symptoms and help prevent them from coming back. Treating the inflammation, of even mild asthma, can prevent it from worsening over time. It is also important to know that other disorders can cause some of these same symptoms. Not everyone who has breathing problems has asthma.

How is asthma diagnosed?

The diagnosis is often established from the history of symptoms and the response to treatment. In older children and adults, breathing tests can help support the diagnosis, but there is no definitive “asthma test”. Other causes of wheezing, cough and/or breathlessness must be considered and ruled out by the physician.

What happens during a flare-up of asthma?

  • The lining of the bronchial tubes becomes swollen
  • The mucus that is normally present increases in amount and becomes thick and sticky
  • The muscles around the airways tighten

All of these things tend to make the airways narrower, partially blocking the flow of air, and often make it harder to breathe. Because different things are happening in the bronchial tubes of asthmatics, it often takes more than one kind of medication to treat the condition. Some of these medicines reduce inflammation and others relax tight bronchial muscles. It is important to know these differences.

What causes asthma?

Asthma is a breathing disorder and not an emotional condition that is “all in your head”. Genetic inheritance is important and the disorder often runs in families. Allergy, viral infections, and air pollution (both indoor and outdoor) are important causes. Once a person has asthma there are many things that can trigger symptoms.

What triggers asthma symptoms?

People with asthma have airways that are affected by things that do not bother people who don’t have asthma. These things are called “triggers” because when you come in contact with them, they may start an asthma episode. Common triggers of symptoms include:

  • Allergens: Substances to which some people’s immune systems react, such as house dust mites, pet animals, pollens and molds
  • Respiratory infections such as colds and flu
  • Exercise, especially running or playing hard
  • Irritants such as smoke or strong fumes and odors
  • Changes in weather
  • Emotional stress, anger and frustration.

How can asthma episodes be prevented?

  • Know your triggers and how you can avoid them
  • If you have a controller medication, use it every day
  • Know the kinds of symptoms that you get and what works best to treat them
  • Immunotherapy can help to prevent asthma in some allergic people

How are asthma symptoms treated?

To treat and control asthma episodes when they do occur you should have a plan that includes:

  • Knowing when a flare-up might be starting
  • Knowing when and how much medicine to use
  • Knowing how to tell if the episode is worsening instead of improving
  • Knowing when to call for a doctor’s help

What can I expect from treatment?

A good asthma management plan should allow the person with asthma:

  • To not be awakened by asthma symptoms
  • To be physically active without symptoms
  • Be able to prevent many asthma attacks
  • Miss little or no school or work time
  • Have no side effects from medications