What is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the bronchial tubes in the lungs. As the bronchial tubes allow air to flow in and out of the lungs, asthma can make it difficult to breathe and cause additional symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing.
Asthma was recognized as early as 100 AD by Greek physician, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, and affects over 262 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization.
What Is an Asthma Attack, Exactly?
Asthma affects the lungs by causing inflammation in the bronchial tubes. During an asthma attack, this inflammation increases and can be exacerbated by a tightening of the muscles around the airways. Attacks can happen in the presence of allergens, like pollen, pet dander and dust mites, and non-allergic triggers, including pollution and smoke. Very cold temperatures, stress, and exercise can all trigger an attack, as well.
Types of Asthma
There are several different categories of asthma. Every asthmatic is treated uniquely. These categories can be divided into allergic and non-allergic asthma and by age of onset, like preschool, school age, and adult onset. Many asthma sufferers also have allergies and experience a type of asthma known as allergic asthma. Sometimes, otherwise healthy individuals will experience asthma during exercise, which is known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or, more commonly, as exercise-induced asthma.
Those who work in environments that contain fumes, gases, and other substances that affect respiration can also experience what is known as occupational asthma. Finally, millions of children develop asthma in their earliest years of development and have what is referred to as childhood asthma.
Signs and Symptoms of Asthma
The symptoms of asthma can vary widely from one patient to the next. Signs of asthma can also look very different in children as compared to adults.
General symptoms of asthma include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chronic coughing
- Inability to sleep due to wheezing and coughing
- Tightening or pain in the chest
How is Asthma Diagnosed?
As with the diagnosis of most physical conditions, diagnosing asthma begins with your doctor taking a thorough medical history. In addition to the medical history, a doctor will also conduct breathing tests that gauge the strength and performance of the lungs.
Common breathing tests include spirometry, which involves the patient taking a deep breath and exhaling into a sensor. Patients who have a history of allergies may also be given a FeNO test, which detects how much inflammation there is in the lungs. Allergy patients may also undergo additional allergy testing during the diagnostic process.
If the patient is a child, the doctor will also discuss the symptoms and timing of symptoms with a parent or guardian during the diagnostic process. Common asthma tests are not accurate in children younger than 5, so careful observation and documentation of symptoms by the parent can help greatly in diagnosing asthma in children.
How is Asthma Treated?
There is no known cure for asthma. Patients, however, can control the symptoms of asthma using a range of medications. Controller medications for asthma can be both inhaled and oral medications, including:
- Corticosteroids (fluticasone, mometasone, ciclesonide, et al.)
- Long-acting beta-agonists, or LABAs
- Leukotriene modifiers (oral medication)
In some severe cases, patients may need injections or infusions known as biologics. For quick relief from symptoms during an asthma attack, patients can use short-acting beta-agonists such as albuterol, pirbuterol, and levalbuterol. It is important to note that these are quick-relief medications and should not be used in place of controller medications. Additionally, if a patient requires quick relief medications more than twice a week, it may be necessary to make adjustments to a patient’s prescribed controller medications.
As a chronic condition, asthma also requires ongoing management and careful adherence by the patient to asthma treatment guidelines. This involves not only taking medication on a regular and consistent basis, but also engaging in lifestyle choices that help manage asthma in the long term. Patients with asthma should avoid smoking and avoid known triggers such as allergens, pollution, etc.
What’s the Best Treatment for Asthma?
The fastest relief option during an asthma attack typically involves using an inhaler with short-acting beta-agonists such as albuterol, pirbuterol, and levalbuterol. However, this is not a replacement for long-term controller medications. If you’re suffering from chronic asthma, speak with your doctor about the most effective long-term treatment options.
Can Asthma Go Away On Its Own?
As a chronic condition, asthma does not typically resolve on its own. In some cases of childhood asthma, asthma can disappear as the patient gets older. When a case of asthma is severe in a child, the patient will not typically ‘outgrow’ it.
Are There Home Remedies for Asthma?
There are a range of popular home remedies that anecdotally have an effect on asthma, including essential oils and diuretics such as coffee and tea. These are not replacements for medications, however, and any home remedy undertaken should be done in consultation with your allergist or doctor.
How Do Allergies Affect Asthma?
Allergies are some of the most common triggers of asthma. Anyone with asthma and known allergies should limit or eliminate all exposure to allergens, as they can trigger asthma flare-ups.