Asthma is a medical condition in which the airways narrow and get inflamed, which may lead to difficulty breathing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
For some, asthma may be a minor issue. For others, it can be a major issue that interferes with daily life and may lead to life-threatening asthma attacks.
There is currently no cure for asthma, however its symptoms can be managed and controlled. As asthma often changes over time, it is imperative to cooperate with your doctor to monitor the signs and symptoms and adjust the treatments depending on the conditions.
The cause of asthma has not been determined. However, medical professionals deduce that it may be due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors.
Exposure to irritants and substances may trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. Common asthma triggers include:
• Airborne allergens (pollen, dust mites, mold, pet dander)
• Respiratory infections (cold, flu)
• Air pollutants
• Exercise/Physical activity
• Cold air
• Certain medication
• Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
• Strong emotions and stressful situations
While the cause for asthma has not been determined, there are various factors that are believed to increase the risk of developing asthma. The risk factors include:
• Family history of asthma
• Being overweight
• Exposure to secondhand smoke
• Exposure to pollution
• Exposure to asthma triggers – chemicals
The signs and symptoms of asthma vary between individuals. Not everyone with asthma experiences the same symptoms in the same way.
Asthma symptoms may also vary from one asthma attack to the next. For example, the symptoms may be mild during one asthma attack and may be severe during another.
Signs and symptoms of asthma include:
• Breathing difficulties
• Shortness of breath
• Chest discomfort or tightness
• Coughing or wheezing
• Trouble sleeping due to breathing difficulties
To diagnose asthma, your doctor will review your personal and family medical history, and perform various tests and examinations. Some of the tests and examinations include:
- A physical examination will be performed by your doctor to rule out other possible conditions, such as a respiratory infection.
You may be asked to perform a lung function test to determine the amount of air that moves in and out as you breathe. The lung function tests include:
- Spirometry. This test provides an estimate on the narrowing of the bronchial tubes by determining the amount of air you are able to exhale after taking a deep breath, and the speed at which you are able to exhale the air
- Peak flow. This test will incorporate a peak flow meter which is a device used to measure how hard you are able to exhale.
- Methacholine challenge. Methacholine is a known asthma trigger. When inhaled, it will cause your airways to narrow slightly. Based on your reaction to methacholine, your doctor will be able to determine if you have asthma.
- Imaging tests. Chest X-rays can be performed to determine any structural abnormalities or diseases (such as infection).
- Allergy testing. Through a blood or skin test, allergy tests can be performed. Your doctor may recommend allergy shots if allergy triggers are identified.
- Sputum eosinophils. This test checks for certain white blood cells (eosinophils) in the mixture of saliva and mucus (sputum) discharged through coughing.
- Provocative testing for exercise and cold-induced asthma. Your doctor will take measurements of airway obstruction prior to and after vigorous physical activity or several breaths of cold air.
Prevention and long-term control are the primary goals in stopping an asthma attack before they start. Treatment of asthma revolves around short-term relief and long-term control of the symptoms, which will help you and your doctor manage the symptoms. Some of the treatment options available include:
The appropriate medication for you will depend on a number of factors – age, symptoms, asthma triggers, and the most effective method to control your asthma.
Preventive, long-term control medications aid in reducing the inflammation of the airways that lead to symptoms. Quick-relief inhalers work by rapidly opening up inflamed airways that restrict breathing.