What is Asthma?
Asthma occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed (swollen) and constrict (become smaller). The cells in the lungs produce extra mucus which also makes the airways smaller. This makes breathing difficult because there is less room for air to flow in and out. Asthma is a chronic but treatable condition. There is no cure but with proper treatment you can live a healthy life and participate in almost all of your favorite activities with the possible exception of scuba diving. A history of asthma may also require further evaluation for those patients interested in joining the military.
Click HERE for a video demonstrating what happens during an attack.
Signs and Symptoms of Asthma
Common symptoms of asthma include cough, wheezing (some people never wheeze), chest tightness and difficulty breathing. Sleep may be disturbed if these symptoms occur at night and it may be difficult to exercise without experiencing difficulty breathing. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and they can come and go. In between episodes, you may feel normal and have no difficulty breathing.
Triggers for Asthma
Many things in the environment can cause an asthma attack. Every person has unique triggers for his or her asthma. Some common triggers include:
- Cigarette smoke
- Viral infections in the upper or lower airways, including the common cold and sinus infections
- Perfumes and other strong smells
- Cold air
- Air pollution
- Weather changes
- Allergens, such as pollens, animal dander, molds, cockroaches and dust mites
- Strong emotions and stress
- Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin and ibuprofen
- Sulfites which are preservatives found in red wine and some perishable foods
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acid backs up into your esophagus.
Risk Factors for Asthma
Approximately 1 out 10 people have asthma. It is the most common chronic illness of childhood and a common reason for missing school days and work. Before puberty, asthma is more common in females but after puberty, it is more common in males. A number of factors may increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:
- Living in a large city which may increase your exposure to air pollution
- Exposure to cigarette smoke
- Exposure to chemicals at work including paint, steel, plastics and electronics manufacturing or chemicals that are used in farming and hairdressing
- Having one or both parents with a history of asthma
- Respiratory infections in childhood, including RSV (Respiratory Synctial Virus)
- Having a low birth weight and/or being born premature
- Having a history of Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
When to seek medical advice for Asthma
- If you think you have asthma: You should talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of asthma including frequent coughing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness or wheezing. Keep in mind that some people never wheeze. A frequent cough at night or in the morning can be a red flag for asthma. A cough that takes more than six weeks to go away after a cold can also be a sign of asthma.
- If you know you have asthma: Talk to your doctor about developing a plan to help you control your symptoms and to prevent future attacks. If you are having an attack, your doctor can help stop it. Many asthma deaths result from lack of proper treatment. If you are taking medications for asthma, continue to follow up with your doctor so that you can both ensure that the medications are working well and providing the relief that you expect.