Asthma is a lung condition that is defined by swelling and narrowing of the airways, which interferes with the flow of air within the lungs. The exact cause is not always known, but people with a personal or family history of allergies (such as hay fever or eczema) seem to develop asthma more often. (However, there are people with asthma who have no personal or family history of allergies). Asthma attacks are often caused by one or more triggers. Some common triggers include:
- Exposure to animal hair or dander in people who are allergic
- Exposure to dust, mold and pollen in people who are allergic
- Exposure to dust mites, mold spores and cockroach remnants
- Exercise, particularly in cold weather
- Weather changes (especially cold weather)
- Exposure to various chemicals in the air or food, especially cigarette smoke
- Respiratory infections
- Stress or other emotions
- In some people, aspirin and other NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
Some people have a specific type of asthma. For example:
- Exercise-induced asthma is a when exercise can trigger an asthma attack. These individuals can often benefit from using an inhaler before any physical activity or exercise.
- Occupational asthma is when substances found in the workplace trigger allergy symptoms and/or an asthma attack. Symptoms may increase with repeated exposure, even if you are taking a medication to control your symptoms.
Asthma is a chronic condition. This means the symptoms can continue throughout a person's life. The symptoms are due to the constriction and inflammation of the airways. They can range from minor and well controlled to severe. Severe symptoms are frequently known as an “asthma attack.” Some of the common symptoms of asthma include:
- A dry or moist cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness
- Trouble sleeping due to wheezing or shortness of breath
Emergency symptoms include blue skin or lips, sleepiness or confusion, extreme shortness of breath (especially at rest), fast heart rate, severe anxiety and sweating. These symptoms require immediate treatment by a doctor.
If you have symptoms of asthma, contact your healthcare provider. He or she will take a medical history, do a physical exam and help you avoid your allergy triggers. He or she may also prescribe one of several oral medications (those you swallow), an inhaler and/or a nebulizer to help control and decrease your asthma symptoms. The main goal of the medications is to decrease the inflammation in your lungs and open up the airways.
- Depending on the frequency and severity of your asthma attacks, your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to take every day to prevent an asthma attack. (These are different than the medications you use to relieve your symptoms when you are having an asthma attack.)
- It is very important that you take your medications exactly as your health care provider prescribes. Do not take them more frequently than prescribed! If they are not working, you should contact your health care provider.
- Antibiotics may be needed if you also have a bacterial respiratory infection.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend some tests to see how well your lungs are working.
- A peak flow meter is a small, easy to use, device that you can use at home. It measures how much force you generate when you breath out (exhale) into the device as hard as you can. This is your peak flow rate. The measurements are recorded in a log so you can look for any important fluctuations or changes. Your baseline readings can help you see early warnings that your asthma may be flaring up, even before you have symptoms.
- Allergy testing can help determine triggers in people who have allergies.
- Lung function tests can measure how well your lungs are working and how well they are responding to treatment.
- Arterial blood gas is a blood test that measures the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. Blood gas measurement are usually only done during severe asthma attacks.
- Chest x-rays may be done to rule out infection or other disorders.
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Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of asthma.
- Bring a copy of your medical history (past illnesses, surgeries, and hospitalizations).
- Bring a list of your medications (including over-the-counter).
- Write down any questions, symptoms or concerns you want to talk about.
- If your healthcare provider prescribes a medication for you, ask for a generic version. If your doctor thinks that a generic version is not right for you, ask for a medication on the lowest available tier of your Prescription Drug List (PDL).
Here are some questions to ask your healthcare provider:
- What are my treatment options? Are there any alternatives? What are the risks?
- Can you help me avoid my asthma triggers?
- Can you help me develop an action plan?
- Are you recommending any tests? Will the test results change my treatment plan? If not, why do I need the test?
- When might I start to see improvement in my symptoms?
- What are my follow-up plans? What symptoms should I report before my next appointment?
- If you are a smoker, ask about smoking cessation programs in your area. Ask about other ways you might be able to stop smoking.
Make sure you understand your action plan, your treatment plan, any possible alternatives, and what medications are recommended (including possible side effects).