What is Asthma?
Asthma is a disease that causes narrowing of the airways in your lungs. During an “asthma attack”, you may feel short of breath, wheeze, and cough or have tightness in your chest. In between asthma attacks, the disease is still there – even when you have no symptoms. Many children seem to “outgrow” their asthma, but teenagers and adults may have asthma for the rest of their lives.
What happens during an asthma attack?
If you have asthma, your airways are “twitchy”. They are very irritable and sensitive to certain “triggers” – things you may be allergic or sensitive to, such as pets, house dust, pollen, viral infections, cold air or exercise.
- Bronchoconstriction – you airways and the surrounding muscles tighten. This reduces normal airflow into and out of your lungs, making breathing difficult and leads to wheezing and coughing. The attack may last one or two hours. Inhaling a bronchodilator will usually return your airways to normal.
- Inflammation – sometimes a second reaction occurs after the first attack has resolved, especially if the first attack was caused by something to which you are allergic. The lining of your airways can become inflamed and swollen, and a large amount of mucus is produced, narrowing your airways even more.
How is asthma diagnosed?
The diagnosis is a clinical one using a combination of the patient’s symptoms, physical findings, and response to medications. Often times skin testing and spirometry, a special kind of breathing test that measures your lung volumes are performed.
- Education: patients should have a good understanding of their disease, be able to identify triggers and appropriately treat chronic and acute symptoms.
- Environmental controls: elimination of triggers such as pollen, dust, and mold from the home should be attempted. Non-allergic triggers such as cigarette smoke, fumes and strong odors may also exacerbate asthma.
- Medications: quick relief medications open up the airways in an acute attack while controller medications prevent and treat underlying inflammation.
- Adjuvant therapy: such as allergy shots or treatment of acid reflux help by reducing triggers and other causes of inflammation.