An Overview of Asthma

Asthma can be a diagnosis that means different things to different people. Some think that any wheezing is asthma, but that's not the case. Likewise, many people think that asthma treatment is just taking an inhaler. Asthma is a complex disease that is managed in many different ways and will require you to not only learn as much as you can, but also develop a treatment relationship with your doctor.

What Exactly Is Asthma?

Asthma causes inflammation the airways of your lungs.

People who are newly diagnosed, or parents of children who have been, often find themselves asking this question. Simply defined, asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes episodes of difficult breathing and other symptoms such as wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and cough. Asthma symptoms are caused primarily due to constriction, tightening of the muscles surrounding the airways, and inflammation, soreness, swelling and irritation of the airways in the lungs.

When a person without asthma breathes in, air follows this path:

  1. Air enters through the nose or mouth.
  2. It then goes down the trachea, or windpipe.
  3. Air enters the bronchioles, or airways of the lung.
  4. Blood is oxygenated at the alveoli.
  5. Air goes back out again.

However, for people with asthma, this process is different and more difficult. The airways are very sensitive and may react to a number of different triggers, such as smoke, pollens, or infections. This leads to constriction and inflammation of the airways that causes airflow obstruction. The inflammation and obstruction make it difficult to breathe and cause the other symptoms.

Asthma has a tremendous societal impact. ​More than 22 million people—and some 6 million children—have asthma. Every day in the United States:

  • 40,000 people will miss school or work because of asthma
  • 30,000 people will have an asthma attack
  • 5,000 people will visit the emergency room because of their asthma
  • 1,000 people will be admitted to the hospital because of asthma
  • 11 people will die due to asthma

Asthma is not a static disease. Your symptoms will wax and wane over time with treatment focused on both the prevention and control of symptoms and the reduction of inflammation. Furthermore, asthma can vary from person to person. You may experience symptoms that are different, or that simply vary in intensity, compared to others.

If you or your child have asthma, you need to make sure that you do all you can to increase your knowledge and get asthma under control.

Causes of Asthma

Asthma has increased dramatically over the last several decades. While the exact cause of asthma is unknown, many think the following factors act together to cause asthma or are actually risk factors for asthma:

  • Atopy, or an inherited tendency to develop allergy
  • Family history of asthma
  • Contracting certain respiratory infections in early childhood
  • Exposure to some airborne allergens and viral infections during early childhood (as the immune system develops)
  • Other allergens, like animal dander
  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Obesity
  • Airway hyperreactivity (an exaggerated airway responsiveness to various stimuli)

Asthma Diagnosis and Types

Diagnosing asthma is not always easy. In order for your doctor to make an asthma diagnosis you must:

  1. Have symptoms compatible with asthma.
  2. Demonstrate decreased airflow in your lungs that either partially or completely improves spontaneously or with treatment.

Your health care provider will generally take a detailed history from you and perform a physical exam. He or she may order other tests to assist in making a diagnosis, such as pulmonary function testing, a chest X-ray, or certain blood tests.

There are actually several different types of asthma. Understanding the specific type of asthma you have can help you get the most effective treatment. Some of the types of are:

Asthma Treatment

Your asthma action plan is at the center of your asthma treatment. Think of it as your roadmap to excellent asthma control and decreased asthma symptoms. Your plan, which should be periodically be reviewed with your doctor, covers the essential areas you need to pay attention to avoid asthma problems:

  1. Monitoring: Just like monitoring what you buy can help you control your spending, monitoring your asthma symptoms improves your ability to control them. By knowing the frequency and severity of symptoms, you are better able to take appropriate action or identify when you are doing something incorrectly.
  2. Avoidance of triggers: Whether cigarette smoke or dander from your pet, avoiding the things that you know worsen your asthma is a key strategy to keeping asthma symptoms under control. An asthma diary may help if your asthma symptoms are worsening and you are not exactly sure what is triggering them.
  3. Treatment with medications: Your asthma treatment will combine the regular use of controller medicines with periodic use of reliever medicines when your symptoms flare up. It is essential that you understand which to use when, how to take your medications, and how often you need to take them. Non-compliance with a treatment regimen is a common reason why asthma patients fail to achieve optimal asthma control.

    Nearly one in four Americans use some sort of complementary or alternative medicine. These options are generally unable to replace your traditional asthma treatment, but they can sometimes reduce the amount of traditional medicine that you need.

    While there is often much less research or a consensus about their effectiveness for asthma, these treatments include things like massage therapy, journaling, breathing techniques, and certain supplements. Most complementary treatments are safe and may provide other benefits even if the benefit for your asthma is not so great. Others, such as supplements or herbal medicines, have the potential for interacting with your other medical treatments, so it's wise to discuss these options with your doctor before taking them to make sure they are safe.

    Never stop taking your traditional asthma medication without first talking with your doctor about the treatment you want to replace it. Doing so could end up landing you in the emergency department, hospital, or worse.

    A Word From Verywell

    Asthma is a complicated chronic disease, and its management can be challenging. However, by increasing your knowledge and developing a great relationship with your doctor, you will be able to do almost anything someone without asthma can do. While asthma certainly may make things a little more difficult and place bumps in the road now and again, developing a plan, monitoring your asthma and taking appropriate action will allow you to live life to the fullest.

    Partner with a doctor who has good communication skills. There are certain questions you need to ask in order to ensure that you are getting appropriate treatment, and clear answers are essential. Sometimes you may need to change doctors if you are not getting what you need.

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