May 10, 2019
In the U.S. an estimated 26 million people have asthma, a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the airways. The effects of asthma range from annoying to potentially dangerous, so it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you think you or someone in your family might have this condition.
During an asthma episode, the airways leading to the lungs can become clogged with mucus, and their linings become swollen and inflamed. Muscles around the airways also tighten and the airway branches leading to the lungs become more sensitive to asthma triggers like allergies and irritants in the air. That all leads to narrowed airways that make breathing much more difficult.
The most common signs of asthma include coughing, especially during exercise, while laughing, or at night; wheezing; difficulty breathing; chest tightness; shortness of breath; and rapid breathing.
Sometimes asthma can cause what’s known as a flare-up or asthma attack, which can, in some cases, lead to a medical emergency. Symptoms of a severe asthma attack can include fast breathing and ribs or stomach moving in and out deeply; pale blue coloring in the face, lips, and fingernails known as cyanosis; rapid movement of nostrils; and expanded chest that doesn’t deflate during an exhale.
Causes of Asthma
Asthma is a chronic condition, but it’s unknown what, exactly, causes it to occur in some people. Asthma does tend to run in families, so genetics may be a factor. Exposure to certain chemicals and air pollution can also play a role in whether or not a person develops asthma.
Certain allergic conditions are also linked to asthma sufferers and contact with allergens in early childhood may increase the risk of a person developing asthma.
Respiratory infections in childhood and infancy, when the lungs are still developing, also causes inflammation to lung tissue, which may impact long-term lung health.
Smokers also have a high risk of developing asthma, since cigarette smoke irritates airways. Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy are also more likely to develop asthma.
Certain triggers can also make asthma flare up. Triggers might include airborne allergens, pet dander, or mold spores; cold air; pollutants; high levels of stress; and exercise.
Getting a Diagnosis
In order to diagnosis asthma your doctor will perform a physical exam and discuss your medical and family history, including medications you take and your lifestyle. A physical exam will include a look at your ears, eyes, nose, throat, chest, and lungs, and may include an X-ray of your lungs or sinuses.
Some doctors will have you take a lung function test, which measures your breathing. The test will measure breathing before and after a medicine that opens your airways, to see if there’s a significant improvement in lung function with the medication.
If your doctor does diagnose you with asthma, you will likely receive a plan for taking medication and managing potential asthma attacks.
Different Types of Asthma
Asthma has four levels of severity:
- Intermittent Asthma is felt less than two times a week and interrupts sleep less than two nights a month.
- Mild Persistent Asthma means you feel symptoms two or more days a week and wake up three to four nights per month.
- Moderate Persistent Asthma means you experience symptoms every day and wake up one or more nights per week.
- Severe Persistent Asthma symptoms occur every day and wake you up every night.