What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing, which vary in severity and frequency from person to person and occurs in people of all ages. It is the most common chronic disease among children.
It currently affects about 235 million people. Symptoms may occur several times in a day or week in affected individuals, and for some people become worse during physical activity or at night.
It isn’t clear why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it’s probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors.
During an asthma attack, the lining of the bronchial tubes swell and produce extra mucus causing the airways to narrow and reducing the flow of air into and out of the lungs. Recurrent asthma symptoms frequently cause sleeplessness, daytime fatigue, reduced activity levels and school and work absenteeism. Asthma has a relatively low fatality rate compared to other chronic diseases.
Asthma can’t be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Because asthma often changes over time, it’s important that you work with your doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust treatment as needed.
What triggers an asthma attack?
Although the fundamental causes of asthma are not completely understood, the strongest risk factors for developing asthma are inhaled asthma triggers. These include:
- Indoor allergens (for example house dust mites in bedding, carpets and stuffed furniture, pollution and pet dander).
- Outdoor allergens (such as pollens and moulds).
- Tobacco smoke.
- Chemical irritants in the workplace.
- Cold air,
- Extreme emotional arousal such as anger or fear, and physical exercise.
- Certain medications, such as aspirin and other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and beta-blockers (which are used to treat high blood pressure, heart conditions and migraine).
- Urbanization has also been associated with an increase in asthma, however the exact nature of this relationship is unclear.
- Sulfites and preservatives added to some types of foods and beverages, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine.
- Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat.
Although asthma cannot be cured, appropriate management can control the disorder and enable people to enjoy good quality of life.
Asthma signs and symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness or pain
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
- A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)
- Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu
Signs that your asthma is probably worsening include:
- Asthma signs and symptoms that are more frequent and bothersome
- Increasing difficulty breathing (measurable with a peak flow meter, a device used to check how well your lungs are working)
- The need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often
Asthma signs and symptoms flare up in certain situations:
- Exercise induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
- Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
- Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by airborne substances, such as pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste or particles of skin and dried saliva shed by pets (pet dander)
When to Seek emergency treatment
Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Work with your doctor to determine what to do when your signs and symptoms worsen — and when you need emergency treatment.
Signs of an asthma emergency include:
- Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
- No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol
- Shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity.
A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:
- Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with asthma
- Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis or allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
- Being overweight
- Being a smoker
- Exposure to secondhand smoke
- Exposure to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution
- Exposure to occupational triggers, such as chemicals used in farming, hairdressing and manufacturing
Asthma complications include:
- Signs and symptoms that interfere with sleep, work or recreational activities
- Sick days from work or school during asthma flare-ups
- Permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes (airway remodeling) that affects how well you can breathe.
- Emergency room visits and hospitalizations for severe asthma attacks
- Side effects from long-term use of some medications used to stabilize severe asthma
Proper treatment makes a big difference in preventing both short-term and long-term complications caused by asthma.
While there’s no way to prevent asthma, but by working together, you and your doctor can design a step-by-step plan for living with your condition and preventing asthma attacks.
- Follow your asthma action plan.
- With your doctor and health care team, write a detailed plan for taking medications and managing an asthma attack.
Then be sure to follow your plan. Asthma is an ongoing condition that needs regular monitoring and treatment. Taking control of your treatment can make you feel more in control of your life in general.
- Get vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia.
- Staying current with vaccinations can prevent flu and pneumonia from triggering asthma flare-ups.
- Identify and avoid asthma triggers.
- A number of outdoor allergens and irritants — ranging from pollen and mold to cold air and air pollution —
can trigger asthma attacks. Find out what causes or worsens your asthma, and take steps to avoid those triggers.
- Monitor your breathing.
- You may learn to recognize warning signs of an impending attack, such as slight coughing, wheezing or
shortness of breath. But because your lung function may decrease before you notice any signs or symptoms, regularly measure and record your peak airflow with a home peak flow meter.
- Identify and treat attacks early.
- If you act quickly, you’re less likely to have a severe attack. You also won’t need as much medication to control your symptoms. When your peak flow measurements decrease and alert you to an oncoming attack, take your medication as instructed and immediately stop any activity that may have triggered the attack. If your symptoms don’t improve, get medical help as directed in your action plan.
- Take your medication as prescribed.
- Just because your asthma seems to be improving, don’t change anything without first talking to your doctor. It’s a good idea to bring your medications with you to each doctor visit, so your doctor can double-check that you’re using your medications correctly and taking the right dose.
- Pay attention to increasing quick-relief inhaler use.
- If you find yourself relying on your quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol, your asthma isn’t under control. See your doctor about adjusting your treatment.