Asthma

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic illness that affects the respiratory system by constricting the airways. Approximately 25 million Americans struggle with either acute or chronic forms of this condition. Asthma impacts nearly 1 in 13 Americans, or about 8% of adults and 7% of children.

Asthma is the inflammation and swelling of the lining of the lungs or bronchial tubes. Bronchial tubes connect to the windpipe (bronchi), and inflammation can cause these air passages to become small. This decreases the ability for air to pass through them. 

Symptoms occur when the bronchi and bronchial tubes become inflamed, causing chronic issues such as wheezing, breathlessness, and coughing. In some people, severe symptoms can cause life-threatening problems.

Pathophysiology of Asthma and Triggers

Airflow obstruction is the primary characteristic of this disease. Inflammation and fluid build-up leads to narrowing the airway, reducing how much air can flow freely to and from the lungs. As this inflammatory process progresses, bronchioles become irritated and inflamed, resulting in further obstruction and air trapping. Severe symptoms can lead to a dangerous asthma attack.

An asthma exacerbation occurs due to an overreaction of the immune system to various triggers. This inflammatory response affects many body systems. It leads to changes in blood vessels and muscle spasms of smooth muscles, both of which are present in the bronchi walls.

Some of the most common triggers of attacks are:

  • Irritants in the environment (tobacco smoke, cigarette smoke, dust mites, cold air)
  • Bacterial and viral infections
  • Physical stress such as exercise
  • Air pollutants including ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitric oxide; chemicals found in household cleaning products
  • Dry air and cold temperatures
  • Pollen season during spring, fall, and summer

Symptoms often worsen at specific times of the year. People who have asthma as a child may continue to be affected by seasonal allergies or allergy induced asthma as adults. Some even experience adult onset asthma or occupational asthma later in life.

In addition to those above, most people with this disease have additional personal triggers which are often challenging to identify. Lifestyle plays a vital role in controlling attacks. Understanding what triggers your condition can help you plan a management strategy that can reduce the number of attacks and reduce your symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary from person to person. Most people have chronic symptoms punctuated by one or more acute exacerbation of asthma. However, some people will experience only acute attacks on occasion. The most common symptoms are:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing or whistling sounds when breathing
  • Chest tightness or soreness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent coughing
  • Feeling light-headed, faint, or dizzy 
  • Feeling like you cannot get enough air
  • Trouble sleeping caused by chest tightness or wheezing (nocturnal asthma)
  • Having a fever (temperature greater than 100.4°F) along with other symptoms

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, see one of our online doctors now.

Diagnosis

Your doctor or an allergy and immunology or asthma specialist will perform a physical exam and breathing test to diagnose if you have asthma. Due to its prevalence, the diagnosis process is well-established and straightforward. 

First, your physician will ask some questions to help identify what triggers your asthma and what symptoms you experience. Next, they will examine your lungs, nose, and throat to check for signs of abnormalities and listen to your lungs and breath sounds through a stethoscope. 

They may also perform an asthma breathing test and lung function tests using a spirometer that measures the amount of air you can inhale and exhale. In severe cases, your doctor may order imaging such as chest x-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans to check for abnormalities.

Treatment

This condition can be managed with lifestyle changes, environmental control, breathing exercises for asthma, and medication. Treatments vary for different types of asthma but usually include avoidance of triggers and medication.

All asthmatics receive a fast-acting rescue inhaler for use on an as-needed basis to open airways when symptoms suddenly appear. The most commonly prescribed quick-relief medications include albuterol and levalbuterol.

If you have persistent symptoms, your physician will prescribe an inhaler or oral medication for daily use to help prevent symptoms and reduce the risk of an asthma exacerbation. The most commonly prescribed long–term controller medications are inhaled corticosteroids and oral glucocorticoids.

If you live with asthma, it is important to have an ongoing relationship with your health care provider to monitor symptoms and assess how well treatments are working. Your physician may also refer you to a respiratory therapist who can help you learn how to properly use your medications and control your symptoms through breathing techniques.

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Prognosis

The prognosis for asthma has dramatically improved over the last century. Continued research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program has helped reduce the dangers and risks of asthma complications.

Although symptoms may vary in type and severity, this condition is usually treatable. People with this illness must remain as active as possible to stay fit, healthy and avoid complications of asthma. In some cases, it can eventually worsen into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or have other systemic manifestations.

To live well with asthma, keep an Asthma Action Plan and be sure you know how to use your quick-relief medication properly. Make sure to always carry your quick-relief inhaler with you. It is also essential to learn how to use your long-acting medicine correctly and take it regularly as prescribed, even when you feel well.

By working with your doctor to manage your condition, you can live a healthy and active life with minimal impacts from this disease. Speak with one of our online doctors now to start controlling your asthma today.

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