Asthma is a common, but often misunderstood, chronic condition that effects adults and children alike. As a chronic condition, asthma is often something people deal with their entire lives, while for a fortunate few, it is something that can be outgrown. If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with asthma, below are a list of answers to basic but helpful questions you may have.
The word asthma comes from the Greek word aazein, which means "sharp breath." Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the lungs in which the airways narrow, often in response to a trigger such as exposure to an allergen, exercise, or emotional stress. This restricts the ability breathe to varying degrees for varying lengths of time.
Common asthma triggers include many of the same things that trigger allergic reactions. Allergens (dust, pollens, molds, animal dander), medications, air pollution, industrial chemical compounds, early childhood infections, perfumes and strong smells, tobacco smoke, cold air, exercise, and emotional stress can all trigger asthma attacks in different people.
Since asthma symptoms can closely resemble symptoms of other respiratory problems like emphysema and bronchitis, asthma can often go undiagnosed for long periods of time. Some people live with asthma for years, thinking they have a bad cough or chronic bronchitis. Doctors diagnose asthma with laboratory tests such as spirometry (which measures the air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs), peak flow monitoring (which measures how much air a person can expel from the lungs), chest x-rays, blood tests, allergy skin tests, and a look at family health history.
The subjective experience differs among individuals. Some asthma sufferers say an asthma attack feels like taking deep breaths of cold air and others describe it as a feeling of suffocation. For others it can feel like a severe tighten in the chest making it a struggle to inhale. Asthma attacks make it painful and difficult to breathe, and the asthma sufferer often coughs and wheezes during an attack. For those who aren't familiar with these symptoms, having them can cause severe anxiety or panic.
When an asthma attack is brought on by a trigger, a whole cascade of events take place in the body. The inflammation process includes muscles around the airways become inflamed, swollen, and constricted, making it difficult to breathe. Excess mucus is also a common symptom, and in the airways, it can make it even more difficult to breathe.
Allergic asthma describes asthma that is triggered by an allergen. Approximately 60% of asthma sufferers have allergic asthma.
There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled and managed with medical treatment, education, and allergen avoidance.
Currently, the best way to treat asthma is to avoid the allergens or triggers that bring on an asthma attack. See our allergy solution guides to learn how to avoid the following allergens: Dust Mites, Mold, Pollen, and Pet Dander.
However, allergen avoidance is not always possible. Drug therapy consists of anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation and swelling and bronchodilators to open up constricted airways. Leukotriene inhibitors are newer type of drug that have also shown to be effective in preventing asthma attacks.
Metered-dose inhalers are the most common asthma drug delivery system. Dry powder inhalers have gained a great deal of popularity, but not all asthma medicines are available in dry powder form. Young children also often use a nebulizer, which allows the asthma sufferer to inhale the medicine using a mouthpiece or neb cup.
Some people stop having asthma attacks as they get older, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, asthma is a chronic disease that requires treatment. Typically this is usually only the case in some rare instances where a child was diagnosed with asthma at a young age and either "outgrows" it or symptoms/asthma attacks become very few and far between, if at all. If you have asthma, your best plan is to learn how to manage the asthma, avoid triggers, and move on with your life.
Asthma is not a psychological problem; it is a physiological disease. While some people have the misconception that asthma is "all in your head," asthma is a very real disease that can and is fatal. It is worth noting that in some people, however, emotional stress can trigger an asthma attack.
Yes, after first consulting with their doctor. Everyone who can exercise will benefit from it. Asthma sufferers may need to take special precautions when exercising in cold weather or during allergy season, and using a bronchodilator before exercise may prevent exercise-induced symptoms. Most asthma sufferers are able to live an active life with proper management and treatment. Exercise can help strengthen the body, including the respiratory system, and allow it to better handle the rigors of an asthma attack. Asthma does not mean you have to be inactive, and there are athletes in every major sport, even Olympic gold medal winners who have asthma.
It is very important for those with asthma to closely monitor their peak flow readings, which measures how much air they can expel from their lungs. If peak flow meter readings drop 20% or more, then the asthma sufferer should consult a physician. Other signs of worsening asthma include the need to use a medicine more often, medication not having the same effect as in the past, and the development of symptoms at night when none previously existed.
As many as half of all children between 2 and 10 outgrow their childhood asthma, but many find that their asthma symptoms return later in life. The exact reason is not known why, but most people do not simply have asthma for a time and permanently "outgrow" it.
Parents of children with asthma can contact the Allergy and Asthma Network / Mothers of Asthmatics, Inc. The AANMA has support groups and chapters across the country and offer a variety of resources to help those who are newly diagnosed.