Asthma is a common, long-standing inflammatory condition where your airways swell and narrow and may even produce mucus (secretion). According to Asthma Canada, almost 3.8 million Canadians suffer from this ailment. 

To understand what happens in asthma, it is essential to know what happens when you breathe. So, when you breathe, the air you inhale goes into your throat, airways, and eventually into your lungs. Now, multiple small air passages in the lungs supply oxygen from the air into the blood.

But in asthma, your air passages are narrow and filled with mucus, making it difficult to breathe, which may trigger cough, a whistling sound while breathing, and shortness of breath. Certain triggers such as exercise, cold air, and smoke may aggravate your symptoms.

However, the intensity of symptoms differs for everyone. While it may be a minor nuisance for many, it can be intense to interfere with daily activities for others.

In some cases, the swelling of airways is excess, which prevents oxygen from reaching your lungs and thus cannot enter your bloodstream and vital organs. Such cases, where symptoms are severe, need urgent medical attention. Unattended asthma may cause loss of lung function. Although asthma cannot be cured, its symptoms can be managed, and its progression can be prevented. Besides, asthma may change over time.

So, it is important to visit your doctor regularly, who will track your symptoms and adjust the treatment as needed. They will also help you with the best ways to manage your symptoms.

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma symptoms and duration varies for everyone. Some common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased mucus production
  • Trouble in sleeping due to coughing or breathlessness
  • Whistling sound while exhaling (wheezing)
  • Stretching and expansion of nostrils during breathing

Symptoms that may indicate that your asthma may be worsening are:

  • Severe breathing difficulty where chest and neck may be sucked in 
  • Mental confusion
  • Difficulty walking or talking
  • Rapid pulse
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing difficulty causing anxiety

Asthma Attack

An asthma exacerbation or attack is a short-term condition where your symptoms get worse. Patients often get an asthma attack when the airways become narrower because of mucus and inflammation.

While these attacks may vary in severity, some common signs include:

  • Anxiety and panic
  • Extremely rapid breathing
  • Difficulty talking
  • Clammy and pale skin
  • Severe coughing, chest tightness, or wheezing

Early signs of an asthma attack include:

  • Wheezing or coughing after exercise
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling irritable or moody
  • Weakness or tiredness during activity

Mild attacks generally respond to home treatment, but severe episodes may need immediate medical attention.

Asthma Causes

Researchers believe that multiple factors can cause asthma. Some of them include:

  • History of viral infections: Having a history of viral infections as a child increases the risk of asthma.
  • Genetics: If a sibling or parent has asthma, you are more likely to have it.
  • Immunity: A hypothesis suggests that if babies are not exposed to bacteria during their early lives, their immune system is not strong enough to fight allergic conditions and asthma.

Besides, certain risk factors and triggers also increase the probability of asthma.

Risk Factors

Some common risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Having an allergic condition such as allergic rhinitis or atopic dermatitis 
  • Exposure to pollution
  • Being exposed to chemicals used in hairdressing, farming, or manufacturing

Triggers

Exposure to allergens or irritants can trigger the symptoms of asthma. While these triggers are different for everyone, some common ones include:

  • Physical activity
  • Stress or strong emotions
  • Airborne allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, pollen, or cockroach waste
  • Airway infections such as common cold
  • Preservatives and sulfites added to beverages and foods
  • Certain medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, beta-blockers, and aspirin
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Hormonal factors such as menopause or during a menstrual cycle
  • Pregnancy

Diagnosing Asthma

Your doctor may ask you a set of questions, such as a family history of asthma, carry out a physical examination, and may also conduct a few tests to confirm asthma. If you are diagnosed with asthma, your doctor will also tell you the severity, if it is mild, moderate, or severe. They may also advise you to note down your symptoms and possible triggers to help them find out the cause.

Physical Examination

Here the doctor will examine your upper respiratory tract and look for signs of wheezing. They will also check for symptoms such as swollen nasal passages, a runny nose, growths inside the nose, and rashes on the skin.

Lung Function Tests

These tests help your doctor understand the functioning of your lungs. One such test is spirometry, where a healthcare professional will ask you to breathe in and out into a tube forcefully. This tube is connected to a machine that shows how much air you can inhale and exhale and the speed at which it is exhaled from your lungs.

The results are compared to individuals who do not have asthma. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may also repeat the test after giving you a medication that opens up your air passages (bronchodilator). If the results are better in the second scenario, you may have asthma.

However, this test may not be convenient for young children. In them, the doctor will prescribe asthma medications for a month and monitor any changes in their symptoms.

Skin Prick Test

This test helps your doctor to find the exact allergy or trigger of asthma.

Asthma Control Test

This test is not used for diagnosis but helps to understand if your asthma symptoms are under control or not. Asthma control test can be taken by anyone above the age of 12 years. It includes five questions and five choices for a question, and a score is given to each answer. After adding up scores of five questions, if your score is less than 19 your symptoms are not well controlled.

However, whatever your scores may be, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about them.

Preventing Asthma

While it is not possible to prevent asthma, your doctor may help you with measures to manage your condition and to avoid asthma attacks.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Take control of your treatment and monitor your symptoms.
  • Get vaccinated for pneumonia and influenza.
  • Monitor your breathing and try to figure out signs of attack, such as wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath.
  • Identify your triggers and stay steer clear of them or take steps to avoid them.
  • Regularly record your peak airflow with the help of a peak flow meter, which measures how hard you can exhale.
  • Take your medications as prescribed.
  • Use inhalers as advised.

Asthma Treatment

Managing asthma involves breathing exercises, quick-acting medicines, and long-term medications. Your doctor will decide your treatment plan based on your age, symptoms, and triggers.

Breathing Exercises

These exercises help to get more air in and out of the lungs. Carrying out breathing exercises for a period of time reduces your asthma symptoms and improve your lung capacity. Some breathing exercises include:

  • Nasal breathing
  • Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Yoga breathing
  • Pursed lip breathing

An occupational therapist or your doctor may help you learn these exercises.

Quick Management of Asthma

Bronchodilators are medications that relax muscles around the airways, opening them. You can take them as a nebulizer or inhaler.

Here is how you can manage your asthma attack:

  • Sit upright and take your nebulizer or inhaler. If you are feeling uncomfortable, you can ask someone to assist you. Usually, two to six puffs of the medication helps in relieving the symptoms.
  • If your symptoms still persist, you can take a second round of the medicine after 20 minutes.

If you need to take these quick-acting medicines quite often, you can talk to your doctor, and they might prescribe another type of long-term medication to manage asthma.

Long-term Asthma Drugs

Your doctor may prescribe long-term medicines to reduce the severity and number of asthma symptoms. However, they won’t help to manage the symptoms of an asthma attack.

Some frequently used medications are:

  • Anticholinergics: They prevent your muscles around the airways to tighten. Anticholinergics are usually prescribed along with anti-inflammatories.
  • Anti-inflammatories: These medicines help in reducing mucus production and swelling of your airways.
  • Long-acting bronchodilators: They are prescribed along with anti-inflammatory medicines.

Final Thoughts

Asthma is a common, long-standing inflammatory condition that narrows your airways. As your airways are responsible for carrying oxygen from the air to your body parts, these organs cannot get adequate oxygen in severe asthma. 

Besides, you may find it difficult to breathe and have cold often. However, these symptoms vary in number and intensity for everyone. Your doctor will carry out an examination and specific tests to confirm it. 

If you have asthma, your doctor will advise you to avoid triggers and take medicines to manage your condition and prevent it from worsening. Effective treatment will help you to live an active life with asthma. So, visit your doctor regularly as it will help them to understand the triggers and decide a treatment plan most suitable for you.

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