Asthma is a condition that causes the airways to narrow and swell, producing extra mucus. This can cause difficulty breathing and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
There is no cure for asthma, but there are certain methods available to help control it—though these can change over time, as asthma often does. Here’s what you need to know about asthma.
Symptoms and Complications
Symptoms of asthma vary from case to case. Some people may have infrequent attacks, experience symptoms at only certain times or during certain events, or have symptoms all the time. These symptoms include:
- • Shortness of breath
- • Pain or tightness in the chest
- • Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
- • A whistling or wheezing sound while exhaling
- • Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus like a cold or the flu
There are also some signs that previous asthma symptoms might be worsening:
- • More frequent and common symptoms
- • Increasing difficulty breathing
- • Need to use an inhaler more often
For some people, asthma is triggered by only certain situations, such as exercise, workplace irritants or airborne substances (allergy-induced asthma).
Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Signs of an emergency include rapid worsening of breathing that doesn’t improve after using an inhaler or shortness of breath despite limited or no physical activity. Complications can include:
- • Symptoms that interfere with sleep, work or recreation
- • Sick days from work or school during flare-ups
- • Permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes that can affect breathing
- • Emergency room visits and hospitalization
- • Side effects from long-term use of asthma medications
Triggers and Risk Factors
Exact causes of asthma are unclear, but they’re likely due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. What is known for a fact is that asthma can be triggered by various irritants or substances. These triggers might include:
- • Airborne substances like pollen, dust mites, mold spores, pet dander or particles of cockroach waste
- • Respiratory infections like the common cold
- • Physical activity
- • Cold air
- • Air pollutants and irritants
- • Certain medications
- • Strong emotions and stress
- • Sulfites and preservatives added to certain foods or beverages (shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine)
- • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Factors that are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma include:
- • Blood relative with asthma
- • Another allergic condition
- • Being overweight
- • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
- • Exposure to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution
- • Exposure to occupational triggers like chemicals in farming, hairdressing and manufacturing
After diagnosis—possibly through one of a few tests to rule out other conditions—treatment will begin. Treatment is generally aimed at prevention and stopping asthma attacks before they can begin—it often involves recognizing triggers, then taking steps to avoid them. It can also include tracking breathing and monitoring whether medications are helping. In some cases, people use a quick-relief inhaler.
Medications might include:
- • Long-term asthma control medications: These are generally daily medications that are a foundation of asthma treatment. They make attacks less likely on a day-to-day basis. They may include corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers, long-acting beta agonists, combination inhalers and • • Theophylline (a daily pill that keeps airways open).
- • Quick-relief (rescue) medications: These are meant for short-term relief during an asthma attack and can include short-acting beta agonists, ipratropium and corticosteroids.
- • Allergy medications: If asthma is triggered by allergies, allergy shots or other allergy medications may help combat it.
Another treatment called bronchial thermoplasty is a possible option, but this is not widely available. It involves heating the insides of the airways over several visits.
Living with Asthma
There is no way to prevent asthma, but you can work with your doctor to manage the condition and prevent attacks. Here are some tips:
- • Follow an asthma action plan: This should be planned with your doctor and involve medications, monitoring and other elements of treatment and prevention.
- • Get vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia.
- • Identify and avoid asthma triggers.
- • Monitor breathing: This can help many people recognize the signs of a potential attack.
- • Identify and treat attacks early: Quick action makes the likelihood of a severe attack much lower.
- • Take medication as prescribed, even if it seems like your condition is improving. Bring medications to all doctor visits so they can check dosages.
- • Pay attention to increasing inhaler use, as this may signal that asthma is not under control.
If you’re dealing with major asthma symptoms, your doctor can recommend an appropriate treatment plan for you.