Asthma is a common but serious chronic lung disease that causes recurring episodes of breathlessness, coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest. Though it is prevalent among children, the condition may occur at any age.
For some, asthma is a minor inconvenience. For others, however, the condition is more intense and can interfere with daily activities.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways which carry air in and out of the lungs. For asthmatic patients, the walls of the airways are very sensitive and often react strongly to certain substances (e.g., tobacco smoke, polluted air). When a reaction is present, the airways tighten and allow less air to flow into the lungs. This can result in asthma symptoms such as chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. An asthma attack occurs when symptoms worsen and/or become severe.
Asthma is typically diagnosed via a physical exam and detailed information about the patient’s medical history. Additional tests (such as a lung function test or a sinus/chest X-ray) may also be required.
What Are the Most Common Types of Asthma?
Asthma is a single condition, but there are various types with differing symptoms and causes. Some of the most common types include allergy-induced asthma, non-allergic asthma, adult-onset asthma, and occupational asthma.
Allergy-induced asthma is the most common form of asthma. It occurs when the body identifies allergenic substances (such as cockroaches, mold, or pet hair) as a threat and releases chemicals that produce lung inflammation. People can suffer from allergic asthma seasonally or year-round.
Non-Allergic (Intrinsic) Asthma
With intrinsic asthma, the airways are hypersensitive to non-allergy related factors. Intrinsic asthma is characterized by airway inflammation and obstruction. The symptoms in this type of asthma, however, are not associated with an allergic reaction, but the flu, exercise, dry air, and/or cigarette smoke.
Asthma developed during adulthood is referred to as adult-onset asthma and often results from allergies, infections, and illnesses. Post-menopausal women taking estrogen as well as those experiencing hormonal changes may be more likely to develop adult-onset asthma. Adults who have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and/or are allergic to cats are also at a higher risk of asthma.
If asthma symptoms occur and/or worsen during the workweek (and improve on the weekends), it might be a sign of occupational asthma. Although this type of asthma symptoms are similar to allergy-induced asthma, it is primarily triggered by manufacturing substances such as chemicals, metals, enzymes, and animal substances.
What Causes Asthma?
Although the exact cause of asthma is not known, certain genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the development of the condition. Risk factors include having an allergic condition (e.g., hay fever, eczema, food allergies), smoking, as well as exposure to chemicals, pollution, and secondhand smoke.
The risk of developing asthma increases if you: have a family history of asthma, were born prematurely (or with a low birthweight), or have been exposed to cigarette smoke as a child.
The airways react to many different environmental factors, also known as asthma triggers. Coming into contact with such triggers can cause asthma symptoms to occur or worsen.
Common triggers include tobacco smoke, air pollution, smog, some foods, and allergens (e.g., dust mites, pollens, pet dander). Asthma may also be induced by physical causes such as exercise, stress, anxiety, depression, and respiratory infections.
In some cases, asthma symptoms may occur in response to certain medications, such as anti-inflammatory painkillers.
Asthma symptoms come and go and not everyone experiences the same symptoms.
Most commonly – due to the narrowing of the airways – people with asthma experience difficulty breathing, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. Coughing is typically accompanied by a wheezing sound that worsens at night and/or early in the morning.
In children, common signs of asthma include coughing while laughing or playing, tiredness, less energy during play, a wheezing/whistling sound when breathing, and fast breathing. A child might have only one or a few of these symptoms. If the symptoms recur, that could be a sign of pediatric asthma.
Asthma can only be diagnosed by a medical professional. Conditions such as cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may cause similar symptoms.
An asthma attack is characterized by a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms. During an attack, the muscles around the airways tighten and the airways become inflamed and swollen.
It’s crucial to recognize early asthma attack warning signs like losing your breath easily, feeling tired or moody, and experiencing symptoms of a cold or allergies (e.g., headache, sore throat, sneezing).
Signs of an attack include a severe shortness of breath, worsening cough, retractions, difficulty speaking, hypoxia, and an increased use of rescue medication.
The duration of an asthma attack may vary, depending on the cause. Mild attacks usually last a few minutes (after treatment). Severe asthma attacks are less common, but may require immediate medical treatment.
Although asthma cannot be cured or prevented, the right treatment and medication can maintain the condition and control its symptoms.
A crucial part of keeping your asthma under control and preventing asthma attacks involves taking preventative prescription regularly and avoiding known factors that worsen your condition.
Your doctor or allergist is an integral part of your treatment. They can help you discover what triggers your asthma and create a plan that will help you manage those triggers.
It is important to note that although exercise is often an asthma trigger, it should not be avoided. Physical activity is an essential part of living a healthy lifestyle, so consult your healthcare provider to learn what medications can help you stay active.
The most common form of asthma treatment is medication. Asthma medications are generally divided into two types: long-term control and quick-relief. Asthma medication can be taken orally or inhaled directly into the lungs. The medicine type and dosage depend on the patient’s age, the severity of the condition, symptoms, and medical history.
Long-term control medications reduce the inflammation of the airways, control chronic asthma symptoms, and help to prevent asthma attacks. Many asthmatic patients need to take them daily, even when symptoms are not present. There are different types of long-term asthma medicine, including LABAs (long-acting beta agonists), inhaled corticosteroids, theophylline, and leukotriene modifiers.
Quick-relief (rescue) medicines are used to treat asthma attacks and prevent symptoms from flaring up. Rescue medications typically include short-term acting beta agonists, as well as intravenous and oral corticosteroids.
Metered-Dose Inhalers (MDIs)
The most common way to deliver asthma medication is through a metered-dose inhaler (MDI), which is breathed in via the mouth.
With MDIs, it is essential to coordinate your inhalation with the release of medication. To ensure that all of the medicine reaches the lungs, you can attach a spacer (holding chamber) to your inhaler. Some MDI spacers (like ones provided by Monaghan AeroChamber) are especially designed for asthma patients with restricted or obstructed inspiratory flow.
In some cases, a nebulizer may be prescribed to people who find it difficult to inhale their medication with standard asthma inhalers. A nebulizer changes asthma medication from a liquid to a fine mist, making it easier to inhale. The device is composed of an air compressor, a liquid medication bowl, and a tube that connects the compressor to the medication bowl. The mist is inhaled through a mouthpiece or a nebulizer mask. Portable and home-use nebulizers are both options for purchase.
If you need to use your quick-relief medications more often – or it does not ease your symptoms – contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Living with Asthma
Take control of your asthma by paying attention to symptoms. No matter how old you are, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath can be signs of asthma. Although there is no cure for this condition, you can keep the symptoms at bay and still enjoy an active, healthy life.
Interested in learning more about respiratory care? Make sure to check out our blog for practical tips and product reviews!