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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (life time) disease in which your lungs and airways (breathing passages) become extra sensitive to things that you are exposed to in the environment every day.

In asthma, certain things trigger the muscles around your airways to tighten, making your airways narrower. The airway lining also becomes inflamed causing a build-up of sputum. This makes your airways even narrower. With narrow airways, it’s harder to get air in and out of your lungs and thus making it difficult for you to breathe.

Asthma can start at any age. Sometimes, people have asthma when they are very young and as their lungs develop, the symptoms go away, but it’s possible that it will come back later in life. Sometimes people get asthma for the first time when they are older.

Unfortunately, asthma can’t be cured, but if managed properly, people with asthma can lead normal active lives.

Causes

The precise cause of asthma remains unknown, but we do know that many things can increase the chance of someone getting Asthma

  • GeneticsAsthma tends to run in families. If one of your parents has asthma, then you are more likely to have asthma too.
  • AllergiesSome people are more likely to develop allergies than others, especially if one of their parents has allergies. Certain allergic conditions like allergic rhinitis and atopic dermatitis (eczema) are linked to people who get asthma.
  • Respiratory InfectionsAs the lungs develop in infancy and early childhood, certain respiratory infections have been shown to cause inflammation and damage the lung tissue. The damage that is caused in infancy or early childhood can impact lung function long-term.
  • EnvironmentContact with allergens, certain irritants, or exposure to viral infections as an infant or in early childhood when the immune system isn’t fully mature have been linked to developing asthma. Exposure to certain chemicals and dust in the workplace may also play a significant role in adult-onset asthma.

Symptoms

Symptoms of asthma include:

  • Shortness of breath – feeling that you can’t get enough air into your lungs
  • Wheezing – making a noise like a whistle when you breathe out
  • Tightness in the chest – especially during cold weather or exercise
  • Coughing – may be more common at night, may or may not cough up mucus

Symptoms of asthma can be triggered by anything that irritates and inflames your airways. Common situations – or triggers – are:

  • The common cold
  • Allergies to things like pollen and animal fur
  • Irritants, like tobacco smoke, spray cleaners and dust
  • Heightened emotions
  • Air pollution especially from traffic

Sometimes the airways only narrow a little, resulting in mild symptoms. But some people’s airways can become so narrow that they can’t get enough oxygen into their lungs and their bloodstream. This is very dangerous and requires immediate medical attention.

Signs and symptoms of a serious asthma emergency:

  • Struggling for breath
  • Rescue inhaler doesn’t help
  • Difficulty speaking, can’t finish a sentence
  • Sucking in the skin above breastbone and between ribs
  • Nostrils flaring out
  • Pale, grey, sweating
  • Blue lips or nail beds
  • Unconscious (fainted)

Diagnosis

Your doctor makes a diagnosis of asthma based on your symptoms, family history of allergies and the results of breathing tests.

Testing for Asthma

There are several breathing tests your doctor may perform. The most common test is called spirometry, which uses a device called, a spirometer, to measure the amount and speed of the air you blow out. This helps your doctor to see how well your lungs are working.

There are other lung diseases that may cause some of the same symptoms as asthma. If your doctor thinks you might have something else, he or she may order additional tests. For example, to measure inflammation of the lung lining or a chest X-ray to help to rule out other lung problems.

Treatment

The most common form of treatment is medication taken through an inhaler, also called a pump or a puffer. Inhalers contain measured doses of medication that you take into your airways when you breathe in.

There are two main kinds of asthma medicines: preventer medicine and rescue medicine. Each medicine is important, and each medicine does a different thing for your lungs.

For most people with asthma, the doctor will prescribe both kinds of medicine:

  • Asthma preventer (controller) medicine: You take your preventer medicine every day, even if you have no symptoms, to make sure your airways stay clear and to prevent redness, mucus, and swelling.
    Inhaled corticosteroids are the most common and effective type of asthma preventer.
  • Asthma rescue medicine: You keep your rescue medicine on hand and take it only when you need it – during an asthma attack, if your breathing gets bad, or (sometimes) before exercising.
    Reliever inhalers contain a medication called short-acting beta agonists, or SABAs, which relax the muscles around the tightened airways, so the airways can open wider. This makes it easier to breathe and reduces your symptoms. The most common SABA is salbutamol.

Management

Each person’s asthma is different. You and your doctor will work together to establish the best treatment plan based on your symptoms and needs. Asthma requires ongoing assessments and monitoring throughout your lifetime. At the initial visit, your asthma care provider will determine your level of severity and create a treatment plan. At each follow-up visit, they will assess your asthma control and adjust your treatment plan as needed

Take these steps to manage your asthma:

  • Work with doctor to get your asthma under control
  • Follow your written asthma action plan
  • Avoid your asthma triggers: smoke, cold air, etc.
  • Avoid your asthma inducers: allergies, viruses, etc.
  • Use your asthma medications as prescribed
  • Know what to do in an asthma emergency (asthma attack)
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