What is asthma?

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Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the lungs. The disease is known to cause wheezing, a tight chest, breathlessness, and coughing. Asthma is most common in children, but diagnoses in adults are rapidly increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 1 in 13 people have asthma. More than 25 million Americans have asthma, comprising 7.7 percent of adults and 8.4 percent of children. This makes it a very common condition.

There is no cure for asthma, but there are several treatments that can help individuals mitigate symptoms. With the right treatment and management, asthma is not a very serious condition. However, it is still possible for the condition to be dangerous. Around 10 Americans die from asthma each day. Many of these deaths can be avoided with proper treatment. If you have asthma, or suspect you have asthma, make an appointment with a pulmonologist. They can help steer you toward a treatment that works for you and your lifestyle.

What are common asthma causes?

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Doctors don’t know what exactly causes asthma. Current research points to a combination of genetic, occupational, and environmental factors. For example, those whose family members have asthma are more likely to have the condition. Similarly, those who are exposed to certain environmental stimuli, like mold, tobacco smoke, and dust mites, can also develop asthma over time. Increasing air pollution is thought to be a main driver of the recent increase in asthma diagnoses.

Generally, asthma symptoms are caused by a variety of external stimuli. This can include allergens, like rubber latex, animal proteins, and industrial chemicals, and other irritants, like burning wood, cold air, air pollution, and cigarette smoke. Certain perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning products, dust, and certain textiles are also known to cause asthma flares.

When stimuli are introduced into an asthmatic’s body, airways begin to swell. This causes a narrowing, especially in the airways that carry oxygen from the nose and mouth into the lungs. In some cases, mucus begins to fill the airways, further reducing the amount of air that can pass. This can cause trouble breathing, which can be life-threatening without treatment.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

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Asthma symptoms are very common, which can make it difficult to receive a diagnosis. Children under 5 years old are especially difficult to diagnose. A person may experience any of the following asthma symptoms.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty talking
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing, especially when laughing, during exercise, and/or during sleep
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Panic, anxiousness, or general anxiety

Most folks familiar with asthma know about or have experienced an asthma attack. Known clinically as an “exacerbation,” this occurs when asthma gets progressively worse. Asthma attack symptoms can include any of the follow experiences.

  • Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • General agitation

It is important to remember that asthma will manifest differently for each person. If you suspect you have asthma, the best way to receive a diagnosis and treatment is to visit a pulmonologist. Only a doctor can administer the tests necessary to provide an asthma diagnosis.

What are the different types of asthma?

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There are several types of asthma. Each is characterized by the stimuli that causes the asthma attack, as well as which part of the pulmonary system it most affects. The most common type of asthma is called bronchial asthma. This primarily affects the bronchi in the lungs. However, there are other common types of asthma.

  • Intrinsic Asthma: Also known as nonallergic asthma, this form of the condition is caused by triggers that are unrelated to allergies. This can include things like air pollution, air fresheners, perfumes, wood smoke, and cigarette smoke.
  • Occupational Asthma: This type of asthma is induced by workplace triggers. The most often includes dusts and dyes, but it can also include gases, fumes, latex, and industrial chemicals.
  • Extrinsic Asthma: Also known as allergic asthma, this form of the condition is triggered by allergens. This can include pet dander, mold, pollen, dust, and certain foods.
  • Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction: This very specific type of asthma is known to affect people in the first 5 to 10 minutes after physical activity.

While each type of asthma has its own cause, many will require the same treatment. However, that treatment can only be administered by a medical professional. If you experience asthma symptoms when exposed to any of the above irritants, schedule an appointment with your doctor or pulmonologist. Proper treatment can prevent the health risks posed by asthma.

How do I get an asthma diagnosis?

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Like many chronic diseases, there is no single test a doctor will conduct to provide an asthma diagnosis. If you or your child have asthma, the doctor will perform a variety of tests to determine certain diagnostic criteria. This will always include a health history and physical exam.

The doctor will likely administer a breathing test, also known as a pulmonary function test. This is designed to measure airflow into and out of the lungs. Typically, the patient is instructed to blow into a device to measure air speed. Other tests may include a chest or sinus X-ray.

If the doctor suspects an asthma diagnosis, they will classify the condition, based on its severity, before administering treatment. Common asthma classifications range from intermittent, wherein asthma does not affect daily activities, to severe persistent, wherein symptoms occur several times each day and limit daily activities.

Is there a treatment for asthma?

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While there is no cure for asthma, there are several treatment options that can reduce symptoms and the risk of complications. Treatments typically fall into three categories: quick-acting medications, long-term control medications, and breathing exercises. Your doctor will prescribe your treatment based on the type of asthma you have, as well as your triggers. Age is a treatment factor for young children.

We have outlined some common medicines and strategies within each treatment category below.

  • Quick-Relief Asthma Treatments: These medications are used only in the event of an asthma attack, which is the sudden onset of symptoms. Bronchodilators can work within minutes to relax tightened airways. They are usually taken as an inhaler. Two to six puffs of this medication can almost instantly ease symptoms.
  • Long-Term Asthma Treatments: These medications are taken daily and are prescribed to reduce the severity of symptoms when they do appear. Long-term asthma treatments typically include anti-inflammatory medicines taken with an inhaler, anticholinergics to stop muscles from tightening, and long-acting bronchodilators. Additionally, biologic therapies, a new type of treatment, may be used.
  • Breathing Exercises: Regular breathing exercises have been shown to help increase lung capacity and reduce the severity of asthma symptoms. Your pulmonologist or occupational therapist will teach you a range of exercises to help improve your asthma symptoms.

What is the outlook for people living with asthma?

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With proper treatment, asthma can be a very easy condition to live with. Taking preventative medications and carrying an inhaler can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. However, these treatments are only available with the help of the doctor. While there is no cure for asthma, a pulmonologist can work with you to significantly reduce symptoms.

Be aware that asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD, are often mistaken for one another. Both include similar symptoms, but the conditions are very different. COPD is a term used to identify progressive respiratory diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD can be very dangerous. If you experience asthma symptoms, talk to your doctor about potential risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These conditions can occur simultaneously, but they will require separate treatments.

There are also several ways to prevent asthma attacks. If you know what triggers your asthma, do what you can do avoid it. Receiving allergy shots has been shown to reduce the number of asthma attacks a person experiences, depending on their allergy. Additionally, working on other aspects of your health, including eating a healthier diet, quitting smoking, managing stress, regularly exercising, and managing weight, can all contribute to a more positive asthma outlook.