If you frequently experience shortness of breath or you hear a whistling or wheezy sound in your chest when you breathe, you may have asthma.
Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. It is a long-term lung condition. People with asthma have sensitive airways in their lungs which react to triggers, causing a ‘flare-up’. In a flare-up, the muscles around the airway squeeze tight, the airways swell and become narrow and there is more mucus. These things make it harder to breathe.
An asthma flare-up can come on slowly (over hours, days or even weeks) or very quickly (over minutes). A sudden or severe asthma flare-up is sometimes called an asthma attack or asthma episode.
It affects people of all ages. Some people get asthma when they are young; others when they are older.
Asthma cannot be cured, but for most people it can be well controlled by following a daily management plan.
What are the Symptoms of Asthma?
A person’s asthma symptoms can vary over time. Sometimes they will have no symptoms, especially when their asthma is well-controlled. Symptoms often vary from person to person, but they are most commonly:
Wheezing. Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound that occurs when you breathe
Tight feeling in the chest
Feelings of weakness or tiredness
If it is severe, asthma can result in decreased activity and inability to talk.
Symptoms often occur at night, early in the morning or during/just after activity. They are caused by the narrowing of the airways.
Not every person with asthma experiences the same symptoms of an asthma attack. You may not have all of these symptoms or you may have different symptoms at different times. Your symptoms may be subtle such as decreased activity or lethargy. Your symptoms may also vary from mild to severe from one asthma attack to the next.
If your asthma is well controlled, you should only have occasional asthma symptoms.
If you have symptoms regularly, you should see your doctor, and visit the Controlling Asthma section.
The causes of asthma are not fully understood, although people with asthma often have a family history of asthma. Allergies and asthma often occur together, along with eczema.
Research has shown that exposure to tobacco smoke (especially as a baby or young child), obesity and some workplace chemicals can increase the risk of developing asthma.
People with asthma have very sensitive airways that react to many different things in the environment called "asthma triggers." Contact with these triggers cause asthma symptoms to start or worsen. The following are common triggers for asthma:
Infections such as sinusitis, colds, and flu
Allergens from dust, animal fur, cockroaches, mould, and pollens from trees, grasses, and flowers
Irritants such as strong odours from perfumes, cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemicals or dust in the workplace, compounds in home décor products, cleaning solutions and sprays (such as hairspray)
Medicines such as aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and nonselective beta-blockers
Sulfites in foods and drinks
Exercise (known as exercise-induced asthma)
Weather; changes in temperature and/or humidity, cold air
Strong emotions such as anxiety, laughter or crying, stress
How Is Asthma Diagnosed?
If you suspect that you have asthma, see your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an asthma specialist, also known as a pulmonologist. He or she can examine you and run tests for asthma to determine if you have it.
You may need to see an asthma specialist if:
You need special tests to help diagnose asthma
You've had a life-threatening asthma attack
You need more than one kind of medicine or higher doses of medicine to control your asthma, or if you have overall problems getting your asthma well controlled
You're thinking about getting allergy treatments
How Is Asthma Treated and Controlled?
Asthma is a long-term disease that has no cure. The goal of asthma treatment is to control the disease. Good asthma control will:
Prevent chronic and troublesome symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath
Reduce your need for quick-relief medicines
Help you maintain good lung function
Let you maintain your normal activity level and sleep through the night
Prevent asthma attacks that could result in an emergency room visit or hospital stay
While there's no way to prevent asthma but to control asthma by working together with your doctor, he/she can design a step-by-step plan for living with your condition and preventing asthma attacks.
Follow your asthma action plan. With your doctor and health care team, write a detailed plan for taking medications and managing an asthma attack. Then be sure to follow your plan.
Asthma is an ongoing condition that needs regular monitoring and treatment. Taking control of your treatment can make you feel more in control of your life in general.
Get vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia. Staying current with vaccinations can prevent flu and pneumonia from triggering asthma flare-ups.
Identify and avoid asthma triggers. A number of outdoor allergens and irritants — ranging from pollen and mold to cold air and air pollution — can trigger asthma attacks. Find out what causes or worsens your asthma, and take steps to avoid those triggers.
Monitor your breathing. You may learn to recognize warning signs of an impending attack, such as slight coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath. But because your lung function may decrease before you notice any signs or symptoms, regularly measure and record your peak airflow with a home peak flow meter.
Identify and treat attacks early. If you act quickly, you're less likely to have a severe attack. You also won't need as much medication to control your symptoms.
When your peak flow measurements decrease and alert you to an oncoming attack, take your medication as instructed and immediately stop any activity that may have triggered the attack. If your symptoms don't improve, get medical help as directed in your action plan.
Pay attention to increasing quick-relief inhaler use. If you find yourself relying on your quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol, your asthma isn't under control. See your doctor about adjusting your treatment.
Take your medication as prescribed. Just because your asthma seems to be improving, don't change anything without first talking to your doctor. It's a good idea to bring your medications with you to each doctor visit, so your doctor can double-check that you're using your medications correctly and taking the right dose.
Status Asthmaticus (Severe Asthma Attacks)
Prolonged asthma attacks that do not respond to treatment with bronchodilators (a drug that relaxes and dilates the bronchial passageways and improves the passages of air into the lungs) are a medical emergency. Doctors call these severe attacks "status asthmaticus" and they require immediate emergency care.
Asthma has no cure. Even when you feel fine, you still have the disease and it can flare up at any time.
However, with today's knowledge and treatments, most people who have asthma are able to manage the disease. They have few, if any, symptoms. They can live normal, active lives and sleep through the night without interruption from asthma.
If you have asthma, you can take an active role in managing the disease. For successful, thorough, and ongoing treatment, build strong partnerships with your doctor and other health care providers.