What is Asthma?

Asthma is a common, chronic lung disease that reduces the amount of air that is able to reach lungs causing the symptoms of shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and a feeling of tightness in the chest. Nearly 1 in 12 people in the United States suffers from asthma.

While the exact cause of asthma is unknown, genetics and the environment are known to play a role. You are more likely to have asthma if you have a family member who has the disease. We encourage you to visit one of our expert pulmonologists if any of the following pertain to you:

  • You have a family history of asthma
  • You have been exposed to a number of environmental allergens or triggers such as dust mites, mold, or air pollution
  • You suffer from any of the symptoms of asthma

Other conditions, such as sinusitis, sleep apnea, reflux and diabetes can bring on asthma symptoms, or make them worse. The most common triggers of asthma include:

  • Weather extremes—hot, cold, humidity, or abrupt change in weather conditions
  • Exercise—particularly in cold, dry air
  • Strong fumes—car exhaust, tobacco smoke, perfumes, paints, or cleaning sprays
  • Allergens—furry pets, dust, mold, grasses, trees, or cockroaches
  • Strong emotions—laughter or crying
  • Infection—upper respiratory or sinusitis
  • Foods and beverages—nuts, red wine, or salad bars with sulfite as a preservative
  • Medications—aspirin, ibuprofen, and beta blocker medicines used to treat high blood pressure, migraine headaches and glaucoma
  • Specific jobs that may involve exposures to agents that trigger or worsen asthma such laboratory animals (researchers or lab technicians), flour (bakers), latex (health care workers), and others

Screening and Diagnosis

To diagnose your condition, our physicians will take your full medical history, conduct a physical exam, and evaluate your symptoms. There are tests that experts can use to determine if you have asthma and its severity. These tests include:

Pulmonary Function Test (PFT). PFT assesses lung function or capacity by having you breath both normally, by taking deep breaths into a tube, and by holding your breath briefly. The results of these tests will help your physician assess the severity of your asthma and then develop a treatment plan for you. Overtime, your doctor may repeat these to assess the effectiveness of your treatment.

The Methacholine Challenge Test. Methacholine is used to establish a diagnosis of hyperreactive airways, an aspect of asthma. During this test, your doctor will ask you to breathe through your mouth inhaling a mist of salt water, a placebo with no medicine first, then adding, and increasing amounts of the drug, methacholine. After each breath, your doctor will measure your lung function. The test will end when you experience significant asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and/or chest tightness, if your lung function has decreased, or when you have received the highest safe dose of methacholine. At the end of the test, you will be able to relieve symptoms you experienced with a bronchodilator, a quick acting way to clear your breathing passageway.

Allergy Skin Testing. Skin testing is performed to assess your sensitivity to common allergens including grasses, trees, molds, dust mites, and animal dander. The test involves placing a drop of each allergy solution on the inner surface of your forearm, lightly pricking the skin under each drop, and measuring the swelling or redness that may occur.

Your doctor may also choose to evaluate you for allergies by using a simple blood test. The results of these tests are important, because if you have allergic asthma, your treatment may differ from asthma sufferers who do not display these allergic reactions.