Asthma is a disease that affects your lungs. It is one of the most common long-term diseases of children, but adults can have asthma, too. Asthma causes wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and coughing at night or early in the morning. If you have asthma, you have it all the time, but you will have asthma attacks only when something bothers your lungs.
In most cases, we don’t know what causes asthma, and we don’t know how to cure it. We know that if someone in your family has asthma you are more likely to have it.
Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:
- Coughing. Coughing from asthma often is worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep.
- Wheezing. Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound that occurs when you breathe.
- Chest tightness. This may feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
- Shortness of breath. Some people who have asthma say they can't catch their breath or they feel out of breath. You may feel like you can't get air out of your lungs.
Not all people who have asthma have these symptoms. Likewise, having these symptoms doesn't always mean that you have asthma. The best way doctors have to diagnose asthma is to use a lung function test, ask about medical history (including type and frequency of symptoms), and do a physical exam.
The type of asthma symptoms you have, how often they occur, and how severe they are may vary over time. Sometimes your symptoms may just annoy you. Other times, they may be troublesome enough to limit your daily routine. Severe symptoms can be fatal. Thus, treating symptoms when you first notice them is important, so they don’t become severe. With proper treatment, most people who have asthma can expect to have few, if any, symptoms either during the day or at night.
Talk with a healthcare provider if you or someone in your family has trouble breathing or is experiencing asthma symptoms. Each person with asthma can react differently to different things, so it's sometimes difficult to tell if someone has asthma, especially in children under age 5. Having a doctor check how well your lungs work and check for allergies can help you find out if you have asthma. Your doctor will help you find out which things (triggers) may cause your asthma to flare up if you come in contact with them.
During a checkup, the doctor will ask if you cough a lot, especially at night, and whether your breathing problems are worse after physical activity or at certain times of year. The doctor will also ask about chest tightness, wheezing, and colds lasting more than 10 days. They will ask whether anyone in your family has or has had asthma, allergies, or other breathing problems, and they will ask questions about your home. The doctor will also ask if you have missed school or work and about any trouble you may have doing certain things. The doctor will also do a breathing test, called spirometry, to find out how well your lungs are working. The doctor will use a computer with a mouthpiece to test how much air you can breathe out after taking a very deep breath. The spirometer can measure airflow before and after you use asthma medicine.
An asthma attack may include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, and trouble breathing. The attack happens in your body’s airways, which are the paths that carry air to your lungs. As the air moves through your lungs, the airways become smaller, like the branches of a tree are smaller than the tree trunk. During an asthma attack, the sides of the airways in your lungs swell and the airways shrink. Less air gets in and out of your lungs, and mucous that your body makes clogs up the airways even more.
You can control your asthma by knowing the warning signs of an asthma attack, staying away from things that cause an attack, and following your doctor’s advice.
When you control your asthma:
- you won’t have symptoms such as wheezing or coughing,
- you’ll sleep better,
- you won’t miss work or school,
- you can take part in all physical activities, and
- you won’t have to go to the hospital.
An asthma attack can happen when you are exposed to “asthma triggers.” Your triggers can be very different from those of someone else with asthma. Know your triggers and learn how to avoid them. Watch out for an attack when you can’t avoid the triggers.
Asthma triggers are anything in the environment that makes your asthma worse. They can include:
- Allergens from dust, animal fur, cockroaches, mold, and pollens from trees, grasses, and flowers
- Irritants such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemicals or dust in the workplace, compounds in home décor products, and sprays (such as hairspray)
- Medicines such as aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and nonselective beta-blockers
- Sulfites in foods and drinks
- Viral upper respiratory infections, such as colds
- Physical activity, including exercise
- Strong emotions
Other health conditions can make asthma harder to manage. Examples of these conditions include a runny nose, sinus infections, reflux disease, psychological stress, and sleep apnea. These conditions should be treated as part of an overall asthma care plan. Asthma is different for each person. Some of the triggers listed above may not affect you. Other triggers that do affect you might not be on the list.
Control your asthma and avoid an attack by taking your medicine exactly as your doctor tells you and by staying away from things that can trigger an attack.
Everyone with asthma does not take the same medicine. Some medicines can be breathed in, and some can be taken as a pill. Asthma medicines come in two types—quick-relief and long-term control. Quick-relief medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. If you need to use your quick-relief medicines more and more, visit your doctor to see if you need a different medicine. Long-term control medicines help you have fewer and milder attacks, but they don’t help you while you are having an asthma attack.
Asthma medicines can have side effects, but most side effects are mild and soon go away. Ask your doctor about the side effects of your medicines.
Remember – you can control your asthma. With your healthcare provider’s help, make your own asthma action plan. Decide who should have a copy of your plan and where he or she should keep it. Take your long-term control medicine even when you don’t have symptoms.
General Asthma Information
In depth information about asthma, triggers, and how to manage your asthma
Asthma in the U.S. CDC Vital Signs
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