Asthma is a medical condition in which a person has difficulty breathing due to inflammation and narrowing of their airways. Additional symptoms can include excessive mucus production and a persistent cough.

Exposure to triggers, such as allergens or irritants, can cause an asthmatic person to experience shortness of breath, chest tightness, and excessive mucus production, which can lead to fatigue and respiratory dysfunction. In severe cases, asthma can be life-threatening. Although there is currently no cure for asthma, its symptoms can be managed.

Causes of Asthma

Asthma is caused by both environmental factors and genetics:

  • Environmental factors can trigger symptoms by exposing a person to harmful substances. These may include:
    • Allergens, like pollen, grass pollen, dust, animal hair, and pollutants, which can cause negative respiratory reactions. Different people react differently to different triggers.
    • Respiratory infections, such as influenza or sinusitis
    • Cold weather
    • Overexertion during exercise
    • GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease
    • Certain medications, like aspirin or other NSAIDs such as ibuprofen
    • Food preservatives
    • Stress
  • Genetics also play a role, with a family history of asthma increasing one's risk of developing the condition.

Symptoms of Asthma

Individuals with asthma may experience symptoms such as coughing, excess phlegm, chest tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing, and gasping for air, which may occur intermittently throughout the day.

Typically, these symptoms are more prevalent at night and in the early morning, or when exposed to allergens. The severity of symptoms can vary from mild to severe.

Diagnosis of Asthma

In addition to reviewing the patient's medical history, a physical examination involves monitoring the lungs as air is breathed in and out. Tests may also be performed to diagnose asthma, which include:

  • Spirometry - This method measures lung capacity as air is breathed in and out and is the most common diagnostic test for asthma. A spirometry test involves taking a deep breath and breathing out into a spirometer. The amount of oxygen released in one second is measured, and based on the results, the doctor can assess the presence of asthma.
  • Peak Expiratory Flow (PEF) - This test measures a person's speed of exhalation using a peak flow meter. A reading that is lower than normal may indicate the presence of asthma.

If a person shows symptoms of asthma but initial diagnostic tests yield normal results, the following additional tests may be conducted:

  • Methacholine challenge test measures the lungs' responsiveness or reactivity to environmental substances.
  • Exercise-induced asthma testing determines whether asthma arises from physical activity.
  • CT Scan or X-ray of the chest may be required to eliminate other diseases that present similar symptoms.
  • Allergy testing to determine if allergies are the root cause of the asthma.
  • Examination for airway inflammation.

Asthma Treatment

In asthmatic patients, chronic inflammation of the airways can cause physical and functional changes in the lungs. This may cause bronchospasm, a sudden constriction of the muscles in the walls of the bronchioles, which can impair lung function and make them permanently sensitive to stimuli.

To treat asthma, guidelines recommend treating the inflammatory conditions to control symptoms and avoiding triggers and stimuli to prevent relapses. Asthma medications are available in two categories:

  1. Medications to suppress or control bronchial inflammation, such as inhaled corticosteroids
  2. Medications to relieve symptoms, known as beta agonists. They work by opening the airways and reducing symptoms of coughing, gasping for air, and difficulty breathing. They do not help reduce airway inflammation and are taken as symptoms flare up.

As asthma symptoms constantly fluctuate, doctors may adjust prescriptions to treat symptoms as they arise. This approach is used to manage asthma attacks effectively and helps avoid the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Prevention of Asthma

Currently, there is no definitive way to prevent the onset of asthma, but it is possible to control symptoms. Doctors investigate the cause of a patient’s asthma, which may include allergens, irritants, and pollutants, and will provide advice on how to avoid these triggers.

Properly monitoring one’s surroundings for pollutants and maintaining good health can help to prevent asthma. In addition, maintaining a healthy weight, treating gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) if it arises, getting vaccinated for influenza, minimizing stress, and getting sufficient sleep can all contribute to fighting asthma.