Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the function and lining of the airways or tubes of the lungs. It narrows the airways and makes it difficult to breathe.
Inflamed Bronchus in the Lungs
Asthma symptoms are caused by an increased sensitivity of the airways to certain triggers. The triggers cause the lining of the airways to swell and produce extra fluid called mucus. At the same time, the muscles around the outside of the airway tighten in response to the irritation. All of these reactions narrow the airways and make it difficult to breathe. This response is often referred to as an asthma attack.
Possible triggers of an asthma attack in a person with asthma include:
- Viral illness
- Cold weather
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Sulfites, preservatives used in dried fruits and wine
- Medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and beta-blockers
Exposure to irritants or allergens, including:
- Cigarette smoke
- Smoke from a wood-burning stove
- Pet dander
- Mold and mildew
- Smog or air pollution
- Perfumed products
Factors that may increase your chance of asthma include:
- Regularly breathing in cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke
- Regularly breathing in industrial or agricultural chemicals
- A family member who has asthma
- History of bronchiolitis
- History of multiple respiratory infections during childhood, especially less than 1 year old
- Being overweight
- History of wheezing or asthma as a child
- Having allergies
- Premature birth
- Having a mother who smoked during pregnancy
- Tightness in the chest
- Trouble breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Limited exercise tolerance
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your doctor may also do some tests to measure lung function. They may include:
- Peak flow assessment
- Pulmonary function tests (PFTs)
- Reversibility testing
- Bronchoprovocation tests
Your doctor may also do some allergy tests. The test will help determine if allergies are causing symptoms. The test may include skin pricks or blood tests.
The treatment strategy for asthma includes:
- Avoidance of allergens and irritants and control of contributing factors such as gastroesophageal reflux and sinusitis
- Regular assessment and monitoring
You and your doctor should also create an asthma action plan. This is a plan you will follow to help control your asthma and handle asthma attacks.
Medications Used to Control Asthma
These medications are used to avoid asthma attacks, but will not treat an existing attack. Medication may include any of or combinations of:
- Inhaled corticosteroids to prevent airway swelling and inflammation
- Inhaled long-acting beta agonists to relax the airways and keep them from tightening
- Oral leukotriene modifiers to prevent airway inflammation and swelling, decrease the amount of mucus in the lungs, and open the airways
- Inhaled cromolyn or nedocromil to prevent airways from swelling from contact with an asthma trigger
Bronchial thermoplasty to reduce excessive smooth muscle in the lungs and decrease the ability of the airways to constrict.
Prevention is an important step in asthma care. Allergy avoidance can be effective with asthma that is made worse by allergens. Some general tips for allergen avoidance include:
- Avoid outside activities if there are high levels of air pollution, pollen, or mold spores.
- Keep your windows closed during seasons with high pollen or mold spores. Air conditioning may help filter out allergens during warm seasons.
- Consider getting a portable HEPA unit air cleaner to use in sleeping areas.
- Consider getting HEPA filters for your heating/cooling system and your vacuum cleaner.
- Have someone else vacuum for you. Avoid a room that has been freshly vacuumed. If you do vacuum, use a dust mask.
- Keep the humidity down in your house. This may help prevent the growth of mold.
- Treat allergies and sinusitis as advised by your doctor.
- If allergies trigger your asthma attacks, ask your doctor about allergy shots or sublingual immunotherapy. If you commonly have a stuffy, runny, or itchy nose, these shots may improve your asthma.
It may be helpful to learn breathing techniques or doing breathing exercises. Improved fitness may also increase exercise tolerance and reduce attacks. Ask your doctor for advice.
Your asthma plan may need to be adjusted to adapt to changes in your life or health. Staying in contact with your doctor between visits can help you have better control of your asthma.
Online programs aimed at helping you manage your own symptoms can improve asthma control and lung function. Some examples of programs include American Lung Association or Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
There are no guidelines for preventing asthma because the cause is unknown. However, you can help prevent asthma attacks by avoiding things that trigger your attacks. Triggers can vary from person to person but some general guidelines include:
- Avoid strong chemicals or odors like perfume.
- Avoid strenuous outdoor exercise during days with high air pollution, a high pollen count, or a high ozone level.
- Get a yearly flu shot. Colds and flus can worsen asthma.
- Don't smoke. If you are pregnant, it is important that you do not smoke.
- Avoid secondhand smoke. Do not allow anyone to smoke in your home.
- Don't use a wood-burning stove or fireplace, including unvented gas fireplaces.
- If cold weather triggers your asthma, avoid strenuous activities in cold weather. If you must, use a scarf or mask to warm the air before it reaches your lungs.
Talk to your doctor about:
- The right level of exercise for you
- Ways to track your asthma to help identify and treat flare-ups right away
- Your work, hobbies, and home activities to see if any of these may be causing or worsening your asthma
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Allergy Asthma Information Association
The Lung Association
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Last reviewed August 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.