When you have asthma, your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This makes breathing difficult and causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Some people can handle this without treatment but for others it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to death. Asthma is not treatable but is controllable. Severe attacks can be life-threatening.
Work with your doctor to determine what to do when your signs and symptoms worsen and when you need emergency treatment. Do not try to solve the problem by taking more medication without consulting your doctor as overuse can have bad effects.
- Exposure to various irritants and substances triggers allergies. Allergens can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. Asthma triggers can include:
- Airborne substances such as pollen, dust mites, mould spores, pet dander;
- Respiratory infections, such as the common cold and influenza;
- Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma);
- Cold air and air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke;
- Some medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen;
- Strong emotions and stress; and
- Sulphites and preservatives added to some types of foods and beverages, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine.
- Various factors are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:
- Having a blood relative (parent or sibling) with asthma;
- Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis or allergic rhinitis (hay fever);
- Being overweight;
- Being a smoker; and
- Exposure to second-hand smoke, fumes and pollution.
Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. You may have infrequent attacks, have symptoms only at certain times, such as when exercising, or have symptoms all the time. They include:
- Shortness of breath;
- Chest tightness or pain;
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing;
- A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children); and
- Coughing or wheezing worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu.
Proper treatment makes a big difference in preventing both short-term and long-term complications caused by asthma. Asthma complications include:
- Signs and symptoms that interfere with sleep, work or recreational activities;
- Sick days from work or school during asthma flare-ups;
- Permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes (airway remodelling) that affects how well you can breathe; and
- Side effects from long-term use of some medications used to stabilize severe asthma.
A good history and examination goes a long way in diagnosing asthma and also allows the doctor to rule out other possible conditions, such as a respiratory infection or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
You may also be given lung (pulmonary) function tests to determine how much air moves in and out as you breathe. These tests may include:
• Spirometry. This test estimates the narrowing of your bronchial tubes by checking how much air you can exhale after a deep breath and how fast you can breathe out.
• Peak flow. A peak flow meter is a simple device that measures how hard you can breathe out. Lower than usual peak flow readings are a sign your lungs may not be working as well and that your asthma may be getting worse. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to track and deal with low peak flow readings.
Lung function tests often are done before and after taking a bronchodilator to open your airways. If your lung function improves with use of a bronchodilator, it is likely that you have asthma.
Prevention and long-term control are key in stopping asthma attacks before they start. Treatment usually involves learning to recognise your triggers, taking steps to avoid them and tracking your breathing to make sure your daily asthma medications are keeping symptoms under control.
Although many people with asthma rely on medications to prevent and relieve symptoms, you can do several things on your own to maintain your health and lessen the possibility of asthma attacks. Taking steps to reduce your exposure asthma triggers is a key part of asthma control, including:
• Air-conditioning lowers indoor humidity and can reduce your exposure to dust mites. If you don’t have air conditioning, try to keep your windows closed during pollen season;
• Reduce pet dander. If you’re allergic to dander, avoid pets with fur or feathers. Having pets regularly bathed or groomed also may reduce the amount of dander in your surroundings.
• Clean regularly. Clean your home at least once a week.