Asthma

Breathing is something your body does automatically. More often than not, you probably don't notice you're doing it. If you have asthma, though, breathing can become hard to do.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic, or long-lasting, lung condition. It happens when something causes your airways to inflame or swell up. As your airways get narrow, air can't move in and out of your lungs very well. Mucus also builds up along the airways, making it even harder for air to move through them.

People with asthma may have no symptoms for a period of time. But when their asthma flares up, they have trouble breathing. They may suffer from a cough, chest tightness, pain, or wheezing. Without treatment, asthma can be life-threatening.

Certain things can start an asthma attack. These are called triggers. Common triggers include:

  • Allergens, such as dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander

  • Air pollution

  • Tobacco smoke

  • Respiratory infections

  • Cold air

  • Heavy exercise, and

  • Certain medications, such as aspirin

Diagnosis

Asthma can't be cured. Over time, it gradually damages your airways and lungs. That's why an early diagnosis is important. Treatments can minimize this damage.

To diagnose asthma, your health care provider will first ask about your medical history and symptoms. He or she may then order some tests, such as a chest X-ray, blood samples, or an allergy test.

Your health care provider may also use a device called a spirometer (spear-RAH-mett-er). The spirometer measures your lung function while you blow as hard as you can into it. The spirometer assesses the amount and speed of air you breathe out.

A peak flow meter is another way to diagnose and help you manage asthma. It also measures the air flow out of your lungs as you blow into the mouthpiece. If you have asthma, the flow out of your lungs will be lower, especially during a flare-up. That's because your airways become inflamed and narrow, limiting air flow from the lungs.

Treatment

Certain types of medication can help ease your asthma symptoms. Some medications are for long-term control. They help prevent swelling in your airways. You take these every day to keep your asthma under control.

Long-term control medications include inhaled corticosteroids, bronchodilators, and leukotriene modifiers. Your provider may prescribe these medications if you have flare-ups three or more times each week.

Your health care provider may also prescribe short-term or quick-relief medications. These are used only during an asthma flare-up. They quickly relax the muscles in your airways and help you breathe easier. Your health care provider may prescribe this type of medication if you have an occasional asthma attack.

Many people with asthma may need a combination of long-term and short-term medications. They work together to keep the condition under control. Your health care provider will choose the best medications for you based on your health history and how bad your asthma is.

Managing Asthma

If you have asthma, you can prevent flare-ups. Be sure to take your medication as prescribed. Also learn about your asthma triggers. Knowing what causes your asthma to flare up in the first place can help you avoid future breathing problems.

A peak flow meter may also help manage your asthma. It's especially useful if you suffer from moderate to severe asthma. A peak flow meter can tell you if your airways are narrowing before symptoms develop. You can use it to identify asthma triggers and to regulate your medication.

Talk with your health care provider about creating an asthma action plan. An asthma action plan tells you and your family or friends what to do if your asthma gets worse. Working with your health care provider will help you successfully control your asthma symptoms.

What We Have Learned

Asthma can be cured.
True or False?
The answer is false. Treatments can help ease the symptoms of asthma, but they can't cure the condition.

Certain triggers cause asthma.
True or False?
The answer is true. Common triggers include dust, pet dander, air pollution, and pollen.

If you have asthma, you may need to take medication every day.
True or False?
The answer is true. Long-term medications can prevent airways from narrowing.

Health Encyclopedia

Better understand thousands of conditions and treatments: