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What is Asthma? – Causes, Signs and Treatment

Asthma is an inflammatory lung disease that is chronic. The inflammation of the airways causes their narrowing. With asthma there are periods of coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness. Usually the coughing occurs in the early morning or at night.

Fast Facts about Asthma

  • Asthma is a long term disease and there is currently no cure for it
  • People of all ages are affected by asthma but it usually begins in childhood
  • Asthma symptoms need to be treated as soon as you notice them
  • You should avoid asthma triggers except physical activity
  • There are two types of medication used to treat asthma; quick relief medications and long term control medications
  • Many people with asthma lead normal lives with proper medical care
  • An asthma attack is a time when asthma symptoms become worse or when you have more symptoms than usual
  • You may need emergency care for attacks and they can be fatal

Common Causes of Asthma

While researches have ideas about what causes asthma, there is no cause that is known for sure. They believe that both environmental factors and genetic factors play a role and that these factors interact in early life to cause asthma. Some of these factors are:

  • The tendency to develop allergies
  • Childhood respiratory infections
  • If a child’s parents also have asthma
  • Contact with certain infections or allergens while the immune system is still forming

When asthma runs in a family, exposure to tobacco smoke and other irritants may make a person’s airways more prone to react to substances that are airborne. Research is continuing as to what causes asthma and it may be that some factors are more likely to trigger asthma in some individuals than others.

One hypothesis is that the increase in hygiene in Western society has caused children’s immune systems to weaken due to lesser exposure to infections and other environmental factors while their immune systems are developing.

Risk Factors for Asthma

For the most part asthma begins in childhood. Children who frequently have infections of the respiratory tract and wheezing are the highest risk group. There are other risk factors such as having eczema, allergies and parents who are also asthmatic. Adults who are exposed to certain industrial dusts and chemicals at work are at risk for developing occupational asthma.

Symptoms of Asthma

There are several common symptoms of asthma. They include:

  • Not being able to catch your breath or feeling like you cannot get all of the air expelled from your lungs
  • Feeling a squeezing in the chest or like there is someone sitting on your chest
  • Coughing that often makes sleeping hard

Symptoms of asthma may just be bothersome or they may inhibit a person’s daily routine. Symptoms need to be treated when they are noticed because it is possible for them to become fatal. Treatment can alleviate symptoms.

Diagnosing Asthma

Diagnosing asthma involves taking a medical and family history, doing a physical exam and conducting medical tests. These tests will also tell your doctor how severe your asthma is. The severity of a patients asthma dictates the course of treatment. There are times when a patient will need to see a specialist for their asthma and those times include:

  • Having an asthma attack that is life threatening
  • When special tests are needed to diagnose asthma
  • When asthma is difficult to control
  • When a patient wants regular allergy treatment

Your doctor will ask you about any family history of allergies or asthma and will ask you to describe what symptoms you have and how severe they are. The doctor will also need to know about any other conditions that can make asthma worse.

Your doctor will do a physical examination that will include listening to your breathing and checking your for physical signs of allergies and asthma. These include eczema, runny nose and wheezing.

The doctor will use spirometry to assess your lung function. This test can tell the doctor how fast you can exhale air and can measure the volume of air you can breathe in and out. The test may be repeated after you are given medication to see if your results improve.

Treatment Options for Asthma

Asthma is a long term condition that can only be controlled and not cured. The goals of asthma control are:

  • Improving lung function
  • Maintain a normal activity level
  • Help a person sleep all the way through the night
  • Prevent troublesome or chronic symptoms like shortness of breath and coughing
  • Prevent attacks that lead to hospital stays and trips to the emergency room

Patients are encouraged to take an active role in the control of their asthma. You should work with the doctor to make sure that other conditions that can affect your asthma are treated. Patients should also avoid asthma triggers that make their asthma worse. Physical activity should not be avoided because it can make you healthier. Your doctor can prescribe medications that can make sure you stay active.

There are two types of medication that are used to treat asthma. They are quick relief and long term control medications. Quick relief medicines are used when asthma symptoms suddenly flare up. Long term medications are used for airway inflammation reduction and for the prevention of asthma symptoms.

Prevention of Asthma

There is no way currently to prevent asthma. There are ways to prevent symptoms and to control the condition. They are:

  • Learn about asthma and how it is controlled
  • Use the medications your doctor prescribes
  • Identify and avoid the triggers that make your asthma worse except physical activity
  • Get regular asthma checkups

Coping with Asthma

Patients aged 10 years and older should work with their doctors to develop an asthma action plan. For the most part asthma can be controlled at home with proper medical care and by following your action plan. It is important to seek medical care when it is needed. You will need to keep track of your symptoms and keep all of your doctor appointments. When your asthma action plan is not working it is important to discuss it with your doctor so changes can be made. You should also be watching for these signs that your asthma is getting worse:

  • You are missing work or school because of asthma symptoms
  • Your daily activity is becoming limited
  • You have more severe symptoms or your symptoms are causing you to lose sleep
  • You are using your quick relief medications more often
  • You have an asthma attack that requires a visit to the emergency room

Where to Find More Information and Support: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America