An Overview of Asthma

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Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes episodes of difficult breathing. When you have asthma, your airways are very sensitive and may react to a number of different triggers, such as smoke, pollens, or infections. This leads to constricted and inflamed airways that cause airflow obstruction. Asthma can be treated with medications that control the condition long-term as well as rescue inhalers to treat attacks. Asthma has a tremendous societal impact. ​More than 26 million people in the U.S.—including some 6 million children—have asthma.

Symptoms

The classic symptoms of asthma are wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and cough. 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. Asthma can vary from person to person and your symptoms may be different from those of others.

If your asthma symptoms become severe, it is a medical emergency that can lead to respiratory distress and even death. Signs of a serious asthma attack include severe wheezing, very fast breathing, difficulty talking due to shortness of breath, cyanosis, profuse sweating, and a feeling of impending doom. You need to go to the emergency room if you experience any of these.

Causes

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)

Your asthma triggers will be individual. Some of the common ones include smoke, pollens, pet dander, mold, dust mites, infections, foods, exercise, and medications. Identifying and avoiding your triggers is a key component of managing asthma.

Diagnosis

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 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:

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.

    Complementary or alternative medicine options are generally unable to replace your traditional asthma treatment. These treatments include things like stress relief, breathing techniques, and certain supplements. 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.

    Coping

    Living with asthma can be challenging, and you are likely to find yourself angry, frustrated, or sad that you can't do some things you enjoyed before your (or your child's) diagnosis. But if you pay attention to the details of successful asthma management, you or your child can lead an active, healthy life. It's all about what you need to know and do to get better control of your asthma. Taking your medications correctly and making changes to avoid triggers are effective ways to manage asthma.

    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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