Asthma: If you find yourself having trouble breathing, experience regular chest tightness and frequent coughing, especially after physical activity, then you should consider scheduling a doctor’s appointment. Whether you suspect you have asthma or you’ve already been diagnosed with it, you probably have a few unanswered questions. This article is a comprehensive guide to what asthma is and how you can efficiently manage its symptoms.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease which causes your airways to narrow and swell excessively. This leads to extra mucus being produced, which in turn causes difficulty breathing and triggers wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
The intensity of asthma attacks, as well as the overall severity of the condition varies greatly from person to person. For many, it becomes a major impediment during physical exertion, whereas for others it can hinder daily activities and even have potentially life-threatening effects. Asthma can appear in men and women of all ages, affecting over 26 million people in the US alone, out of which 7 million are children.
Asthma symptoms affect normal breathing patterns and generally develop in children before they turn 5 years-old. The most common signs include difficulty breathing, chronic coughing (especially during exercise, at night or when laughing), chest tightness, shortness of breath, frequent wheezing (a squeaky sound) when exhaling and trouble sleeping (due to breathing issues).
If you haven’t made a doctor’s appointment yet or you feel your medication isn’t efficient, it’s essential that you take action before your symptoms exacerbate. The main signs that your asthma is worsening are increasing difficulty breathing (you can measure this with a peak flow meter for accuracy), the need to use your inhaler more frequently and a visible increase in recurrent symptoms and their intensity.
The inside walls of an asthma patient’s airways are either swollen or inflamed, affecting the air transfer from the lungs to the rest of the body. The inflammation also makes the airways overly-sensitive to further irritation and makes the sufferer more susceptible to having an allergic reaction.
That being said, the most frequent causes are exposure to indoor and outdoor allergens (generally pollen, animal dander, ragweed, mold, dust mites, but other airborne substances can set off a reaction as well) and pollutants or irritants in the air (strong odors, chemical fumes and smoke).
Symptoms of this chronic condition can also be triggered by exercise or certain illnesses – in particular, respiratory diseases or the common cold or flu. Extreme weather conditions (cold or extremely dry air, stormy or windy weather) are also known to cause minor episodes.
Physical displays of strong emotions (for instance, crying, laughing or shouting), as well as chronic stress and panic, can trigger asthma symptoms. This is due to the fact that rapid breathing can cause the bronchial tubes to constrict, further limiting breathing and contracting the airways.
Certain medications like beta-blockers, ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil), aspirin and naproxen (Aleve) can also cause or aggravate asthma manifestations.
Because the bronchial tubes are already small and narrow in infants, it can be extremely difficult to diagnose asthma in children. However, it’s important to visit a pediatrician if you suspect your little one has trouble breathing, as chest colds and other illnesses can further shrink and inflame the already compromised airways.
The major signs you should watch out for are a whistling or wheezing sound when breathing, coughing (especially during play or at night), frequent colds which settle in the chest and hindered or rapid breathing that causes the skin around the neck or ribs to rigidly pull in.
You should seek emergency treatment if you think you or a loved one have asthma and experience severe coughing and wheezing that last more than a few days. It’s crucial to contact your doctor if you or your child experience a major episode of obstructed or rapid breathing, as severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening.
You also need to keep in touch with your physician in order to monitor the progress of the disease after diagnosis. It’s highly recommended that you have regular check-ups in order to revise your treatment and make the necessary adjustments, especially if you notice a decrease in the efficacy of your medicine.
If your symptoms have worsened over the past few days and you see no improvement after using a quick-relief inhaler, then it’s time to contact your doctor.
There are a number of factors that increase your chances of developing asthma. Unhealthy habits like smoking, as well as being overweight contribute to the development of lung irritation and inflammation. Exposure to secondhand smoke and exhaust fumes or other types of chemical pollution can also make you more prone to the disease.
Another risk factor is having an additional allergic condition such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and atopic dermatitis. Genetics also plays a role, as having a blood relative with asthma predisposes you to develop the illness as well. Asthma can interfere with work, sleep, as well as daily activities and may require hospitalization in case of severe attacks.
The first step in diagnosing asthma involves having your medical history taken – you will be asked about the frequency and severity of your symptoms, other allergic conditions or health problems, your occupation and working environment, as well as medication use and pets owned.
Next, you will need to undergo a physical exam, where your doctor will check your breathing, examine your throat and upper airways and test your skin for signs of an underlying allergy. Once the basics are covered, your physician will order one of the following tests to investigate the issue further – exhale nitric oxide test (where you will have to exhale into a tube connected to a machine which determines high levels of nitric oxide gas in your breath), spirometry (which will require you to forcefully breathe into a tube connected to a spirometer in order to assess pulmonary function), challenge test (conducted if the spirometry was normal and if you are suspected to have exercise-induced asthma, you will be asked to do physical activity or inhale a substance which causes the airways to constrict in asthma patients).
When it comes to children younger than 5, most doctors will not perform any lung tests on them. Instead, your child will receive a bronchodilator, a prescription drug which opens up the airways in order to alleviate the unwanted symptoms.
Accounting for over 10 million school absences and approximately 14 million missed work days for adults every year, asthma is amongst the most common chronic illnesses which appear during childhood. Management and treatment of this condition are crucial to productivity, health and overall quality of life. If left untreated or misdiagnosed, asthma can be fatal and kills over 3,000 people annually.
In order to rule out other potential conditions which are at play aside from asthma, you’re
the doctor might perform several allergy tests (skin and blood tests), chest and sinus X-rays, examination of the fluid in your lungs (to exclude signs of a bacterial or viral infection) or a CT (computerized tomography) scan of your lungs.
Your physician might also recommend a gastro-esophageal reflux assessment in order to check if there are other underlying conditions which can lead to complications or worsen the asthma symptoms. Other diseases that can aggravate breathing problems include sinusitis, heartburn (gastro-esophageal reflux disease or GERD) and allergies.
In the case of a misdiagnosis or lack of a definitive diagnosis, time is key to telling what the root cause of your symptoms is. After a period of time on the prescribed medications, you’ll be able to figure out what helps and what doesn’t and adjust treatment according to what works best for you.