With the help of your allergist, most people who have asthma are able to manage the disease and can live normal, active lives.
Asthma is a long-term lung disease that inflames and narrows your airways making it difficult to breathe. It is one of the most common long-term diseases of children, but adults can have asthma too. If you have asthma, you have it all the time, but you have severe symptoms (an asthma attack) only when something bothers your lungs. Many people with asthma will have frequent, milder symptoms that can help physicians make a diagnosis and help guide treatment to control the asthma.
Signs and symptoms
Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:
- Cough - frequently worse with exercise and at night, often causing waking from sleep
- Wheezing - a whistling or squeaky sound that occurs when breathing
- Chest tightness - may feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest
- Shortness of breath - trouble catching your breath or difficulty moving air in or out of lungs
What causes asthma symptoms to occur?
Many things can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. Your allergist will help you identify those triggers which may cause your asthma to flare up if you come in contact with them.
Triggers may include:
- Allergens - small particles from dust, animal skin, mold, pollens from trees, grasses and weeds, and cockroaches
- Irritants - cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemicals or dust in the workplace, strong smelling cleaning products, perfumes or personal products such as hairspray
- Medicines such as aspirin or other nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs and nonselective beta-blockers
- Sulfites in foods and drinks
- Viral upper respiratory infections, such as colds
- Physical activity, including exercise
The following health conditions, if not treated effectively, can make asthma harder to control:
- Sinus infections
- Reflux disease (frequent heartburn or acid reflux)
- Psychological stress/anxiety
How is asthma diagnosed?
An allergist will diagnose asthma based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam and specialized tests.
Medical and family histories
Make sure your allergist is aware of the following:
- Your family history of asthma and allergies
- Specific details about your asthma symptoms – when they occur, how often they occur, whether they only occur at certain times of year
- The factors that seem to trigger or worsen your symptoms (exercise, colds, exposure to animals, smoke, etc.)
- Related health conditions that can interfere with asthma (allergies, sinus issues, reflux, anxiety, sleep apnea)
Your doctor will listen to your breathing and look for signs of asthma or allergies. These signs may include wheezing, a runny nose or swollen nasal passages, and allergic skin conditions (such as eczema). Keep in mind that you can still have asthma even if you don't have these signs on the day that your doctor examines you.
Your allergist will likely conduct a lung function test, called spirometry , to access how well your lungs work. This test measures how much air you can breathe in and out. It also measures how fast you can blow air out. Rest assured lung function tests usually are painless or cause minor discomfort, and rarely cause side effects.
Your doctor may recommend additional tests if he needs more information to make a diagnosis. These tests may include:
- Allergy testing to find out which allergens affect you, if any.
- A test to measure how sensitive your airways are.
- A test to show whether you have another condition with the similar symptoms to asthma, such as reflux disease, vocal cord dysfunction or sleep apnea.
- A chest X-ray or an EKG (electrocardiogram). These tests will help find out whether a foreign object or another disease may be causing your symptoms.
How is asthma treated?
To control asthma, work with your doctor and take an active role to manage it. This includes:
- Treatment of other conditions that can interfere with asthma management.
- Avoiding things that worsen your asthma.
- Taking medications per your doctor’s direction to control your asthma.
Asthma is treated with two types of medicines: long-term control and quick-relief medicines.
Many people who have asthma need to take long-term control medicines daily to help control asthma prevent symptoms. The most effective long-term medicines reduce airway inflammation and prevent asthma symptoms. They help reduce the number and severity of attacks, but they don’t help while having an asthma attack. Quick-relief, or "rescue," medicines relieve asthma symptoms during an attack. These medicines act quickly to relax tight muscles around your airways allowing air to flow through them.