Asthma: what are asthma, symptoms, and diagnosis

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (long-term) disease involving the airways in the lungs (that inflames and narrows the airways). These airways, or bronchial tubes, allow air to come in and out of the lungs. If you have asthma your airways are always inflamed. The inflammation makes the airways swollen. This swelling or inflammation makes the airways extremely sensitive to irritations and increases your susceptibility to an allergic reaction.

When an asthma attack occurs, the lining of the air passages swells and the muscles surrounding the airways become tight. This reduces the amount of air that can pass through the airway.

Symptoms of the narrowing include wheezing (a hissing sound while breathing), chest tightness, breathing problems, and coughing. Asthmatics usually experience these symptoms most frequently during the night and the early morning.

Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood.

In persons who have sensitive airways, asthma symptoms can be triggered by breathing in substances called allergens or triggers.

Common asthma triggers include:

  • Animals (pet hair or dander)
  • Dust mites
  • Certain medicines (aspirin and other NSAIDS)
  • Changes in weather (most often cold weather)
  • Chemicals in the air or in food
  • Exercise
  • Mold
  • Pollen
  • Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
  • Strong emotions (stress)
  • Tobacco smoke

Asthma Symptoms

Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with asthma medicine. Other times, symptoms continue to get worse.

When symptoms get more intense and/or more symptoms occur, you’re having an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flareups or exacerbations.

Treating symptoms when you first notice them is important. This will help prevent the symptoms from worsening and causing a severe asthma attack. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can be fatal.

For many the symptoms, one experiences can be wide and varied. Some of the most common symptoms do include:

– Coughing

– Wheezing

– Chest pain, pressure, or tightness

– Shortness of breath

– Allergic symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, and headache.

– Feelings of anxiety or panic

Asthma symptoms may be worse during exercise when you have a cold, or during times of high stress.

Children with asthma may show the same symptoms as adults with asthma: coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. In some children, chronic cough may be the only symptom.

If your child has one or more of these common symptoms, make an appointment with an allergist/immunologist:

• Coughing that is constant or that is made worse by viral infections, happens while your child is asleep, or is triggered by exercise and cold air

• Wheezing or whistling sound when your child exhales

• Shortness of breath or rapid breathing, which may be associated with exercise

• Chest tightness (a young child may say that his chest “hurts” or “feels funny”)

• Fatigue (your child may slow down or stop playing)

• Problems feeding or grunting during feeding (infants)

• Avoiding sports or social activities

• Problems sleeping due to coughing or difficulty breathing

Patterns in asthma symptoms are important and can help your doctor make a diagnosis. Pay attention to when symptoms occur:

• At night or early morning

• During or after exercise

• During certain seasons

• After laughing or crying

• When exposed to common asthma triggers

Emergency symptoms that need prompt medical help:

  1. Bluish color to the lips and face
  2. Decreased level of alertness, such as severe drowsiness or confusion, during an asthma attack
  3. Extreme difficulty breathing
  4. Rapid pulse
  5. Severe anxiety due to shortness of breath
  6. Sweating

Other symptoms that may occur:

  • Abnormal breathing pattern — breathing out takes more than twice as long as breathing in
  • Breathing temporarily stops
  • Chest pain
  • Tightness in the chest

Asthma Diagnosis

An allergist diagnoses asthma by taking a thorough medical history and performing breathing tests to measure how well your lungs work.

One of these tests is called spirometry. You will take a deep breath and blow into a sensor to measure the amount of air your lungs can hold and the speed of the air you inhale or exhale. This test diagnoses asthma severity and measures how well treatment is working.

Many people with asthma also have allergies, so your doctor may perform allergy testing. Treating the underlying allergic triggers for your asthma will help you avoid asthma symptoms.


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