Asthma Overview – Taking Control of This Chronic Condition Today
Asthma is a serious health concern that afflicts millions of individuals around the world, but this incurable health concern can be effectively managed with the help of modern medicine and a few key lifestyle changes.
What is asthma?
According to the Mayo Clinic, asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. The combination of tightened airways throughout the lungs and the additional mucus production create labored breathing and a potentially dangerous inability to effectively expel built-up carbon dioxide in the body. Asthma is sometimes referred to as “reactive airway disease” because the onset is often related to an external trigger of some sort. Asthma is incurable, yet it can be managed by following a few key steps. Though patients will want to consult with a healthcare professional before making any type of self-diagnosis, there are some basic symptoms that point to asthma in the majority of individuals.
What are the general symptoms of asthma?
Asthmatics are quick to point out that not all asthma sufferers are the same. While some experience mild, infrequent wheezing when exposed to irritants, others must work quite hard to manage their more severe cases of asthma. Regardless of the severity of the condition, the followin are five fundamental symptoms that generally uncover an asthma diagnosis:
- Shortness of breath: While this symptom is relative, each individual knows what it is like to feel short of breath. If this feeling arises during random times of the day it is often an indicator of an asthmatic condition.
- Chest pains: A general feeling of tightness or sharp pain in the chest is one symptom of asthma that should never be ignored.
- Wheezing and coughing: Parents should listen closely for signs of wheezing in children, as this is often an indicator of asthma. Adults who find themselves wheezing or coughing after even light to moderate exercise or activities should consider this a symptom, too.
- Trouble Sleeping: Those of any age who cough or wheeze to the point where it interrupts sleep patterns should seek the advice of a professional. This is not only aggravating, but it can cause performance issues at work or school and lead to other serious health concerns.
- Colds make breathing more difficult: Individuals with asthma tend to feel the respiratory impact of a cold or flu in a much more profound manner than those who do not suffer from the chronic condition. If coughing or wheezing is more severe and lasts for much longer than it should, it can be an indication of asthma.
What Triggers Asthma?
For most individuals, asthma is triggered by one of three main influencers:
The first is exercise or general physical exertion. If an individual feels a tightening of the chest, shortness of breath, and/or feels a wheezing sensation after the cool down period of the exercise routine, this can indicate asthma. Those who live in colder, dryer climates may feel this more acutely, as the lack of humidity in the cold air exacerbates the symptoms of asthma. Prolonged bouts of coughing after a jog, swim, or other period of exercise may point to asthma. It isn’t normal for most individuals to cough excessively after working out.
The second general asthma trigger revolves around occupational irritants. Those who are exposed to repetitive doses of a variety of irritants may negatively impact their ability to cope with asthmatic symptoms. Dust, chemical fumes, gases, and a variety of naturally-occurring substances can trigger labored breathing, chest pains, and other symptoms of asthma. This is one trigger that can be more difficult to manage than the others, as the workplace environment is often one that is not controllable as an employee. Patients can talk to their employer about modifying work duties or switching physical locations if the asthma triggers continue.
- Having a pre-existing allergy, such as eczema, hay fever, or food allergies
- Being overweight
- Being a smoker or one who is exposed to second hand smoke on a frequent basis
- Having one or more blood relatives who have suffered from asthma
- Being exposed to occupational irritants like one would find on a construction site or in a factory
- Having a mother who smoked while pregnant
- Being of mixed race or non-Caucasian ethnicity shows statistically higher risk for asthma
Asthma is often triggered by a combination of these factors, and it can then be exacerbated by general illness, outdoor temperatures, and level of physical activity.
What are the dangers of failing to manage asthma?
The final trigger that tends to worsen asthma symptoms is general allergies. Those who are allergic to irritants like pet dander, pollen, dust mites, or cockroaches (yes – cockroach feces are a major irritant to a share of the population), tend to suffer from an increased risk of worsening existing asthma side-effects. Flare ups can occur quickly, so it is important that asthma sufferers understand the environment in which they live, work, and play, in order to keep asthma symptoms under control.
Which risk factors increase the chances of developing asthma?
Once an individual receives an official asthma diagnosis from their doctor it is vital that the patient follow their own asthma care plan at all times. Failing to do so can cause significant harm to the body, and in some cases it can even lead to death if the condition isn’t addressed appropriately. A number of dangers exist if asthma is left untreated, including:
- Interference with daily responsibilities: Asthma can keep patients up at night. Chronic obstructive issues related to the airways and lungs can make it next to impossible to get a good night’s sleep, and the side-effects of this lack of sleep can manifest as poor work performance, excessive absences from school or other social responsibilities, and a generally reclusive nature due to excessive fatigue.
- Permanent damage to the bronchials: The Bronchial tubes can be permanently damaged due to untreated asthma, leading to a gradual worsening of the individual’s ability to breathe normally. This is a function called airway remodeling, in which these crucial pathways are remodeled by the constant airway restriction suffered by asthma patients. This is a largely irreversible condition.
- Medication-related side effects: Long-term asthma management often includes continual doses of potent medications to keep airways clear and functioning properly. Like any medication on the market today, there are side-effects to consider when working with a physician on an asthma management plan.
- Trips to the ER: Though most asthma sufferers are lucky enough to stay clear of the hospital during normal bouts, some individuals suffer aggressive side-effects that can trigger life-threatening complications. Though death isn’t always the outcome when asthma lands a patient in the hospital, it is important to note that more than 3,400 asthma-related deaths occurred in 2010.
How does a physician test for asthma?
Before an official diagnosis is made, a physician will first attempt to rule out asthma by conducting a full physical exam. The goal is to identify a respiratory infection, pulmonary condition, allergic reaction, or other physical ailment that may cause the same side effects as asthma. A doctor will generally conduct one of several available tests that measure lung function, including:
- Spirometry: This is a quick and non-invasive test that measures the amount of air that a patient can exhale after taking a deep breath. The velocity in which it can be exhaled tells a lot about any potential restrictions of the bronchial tubes.
- Peak Flow test: This test indicates how hard the patient can breathe out. This simple exam shows whether the lungs are working at peak efficiency, and is often done in multiple stages to gather long-term data regarding lung function.
- Methacholine challenge: The substance Methacholine is an established asthma trigger that causes a restriction in the airways when inhaled. Physicians will administer a small dose of it and then watch for any constrictions that may indicate a positive asthma diagnosis.
- X-rays and CT scans: A doctor will often conduct x-rays or CT scans to search for any structural abnormalities within the respiratory system. Diseases and infections can also present during these exams, and may provide a rationale for breathing concerns in the patient.
- Nitric Oxide test: Well-equipped hospitals and clinics can test for nitric oxide output in a patient’s breath. Asthmatic individuals often show elevated levels of nitric oxide that result from inflamed airways. Not all doctor’s offices will have the necessary equipment to check this indicator.
- Allergy tests: Whether the test is carried out as a “skin prick” test or blood draw, these tests can help uncover basic allergies to mold, pet dander, pollen, and more – all well-established triggers for asthma.
- Sputum Eosinophils: Physicians can conduct this test procedure that seeks out specific white blood cells in the mixture of saliva and mucus that is expelled during vigorous coughing.
- Exercise or temperature testing: A doctor will have the patient conduct moderate physical activity and then comparatively measure airway obstructions before and after the exercise. Introducing cold air to the patient and then measuring the airway can uncover temperature-related asthmatic triggers.
Once a diagnosis is made, a physician will generally divide patients up into four categories – mild intermittent, mild persistent, moderate persistent, and severe persistent.
How is asthma treated?
Once an asthma diagnosis is made by a physician, a corresponding asthma management plan will be created. This guide to asthma management must be adhered to closely, and the patient will have to act as a committed partner to ensure that the symptoms of this condition are kept at bay. Treatments are general broken up into three main areas – prescription drug therapy, short-term medications for outbreaks, and lifestyle changes, though there are some surgical options available as well. The following treatment options are commonly seen today:
- Prescription drugs for asthma: A doctor may prescribe an inhaled corticosteroid to reduce the symptoms of asthma, but these generally take a few days to several weeks to fully work. Leukotriene modifiers are generally prescribed as an oral medication and have been shown to relieve asthma-related symptoms for up to 24 hours. They do have some documented side-effects, so it is important that the patient and the physician communicate often regarding the efficacy of the medication. Long acting beta-agonists are an inhaled medication that open the airways during moderate asthmatic episodes, but they have been shown to increase the risk of severe asthma concerns in patients. Lastly, combination inhalers contain both a long acting beta agonist and a corticosteroid for maximum effect.
- Short-term treatments: While long-term remedies are certainly one part of the asthma treatment plan, short-term solutions must also be considered when symptoms flare up quickly. Those who experience sporadic yet significant bouts of asthma can carry a short-acting beta agonist that effectively reduces the airways, making breathing significant easier. Some individuals will benefit greatly from oral or intravenous corticosteroids that can erase asthma side effects quickly, too.
- Allergy treatment: Some physicians will suggest immunotherapy to help combat the side effects of allergies in patients. This generally takes the form of allergy shots that are administered on a weekly or monthly basis – oftentimes for several years. Others will prescribe injections to be taken every few weeks that help the patient build up an immunity to allergic triggers. Lastly, oral and nasal-spray antihistamines are easy to use and can be quite effective in minimizing the effects of allergies.
What lifestyle or home remedies can help minimize the effects of asthma?
Asthma is often well-regulated through the use of prescription medicines, allergy treatments, and over the counter antihistamines, but there are several other non-medicinal options that can help to keep asthma symptoms at bay, too. The following are several key ways to minimize asthma flare ups without having to use medicine:
- Clean the house: This is an important step – and cleaning the blinds, blankets, pillows, sheets, and other fabrics in the house can help to eliminate the dust mites and general household dust that tend to drive a significant share of allergic reactions in patients. Pay attention to the areas where you sleep, as breathing dusty or dirty air for hours on end can trigger asthma symptoms..
- Keep humidity in check: Proper humidity levels can help to keep asthma symptoms from getting out of control, and the Mayo Clinic suggest that humidity levels in a house should remain between 30% and 50% for the majority of individuals. Too low and the throat can become dry and irritated, too high and bacteria, mold, and mites can flourish.
- Run the air-conditioner: By running the A/C instead of keeping the windows open, humidity levels will generally drop (they are higher in the summer as in) and fewer outside irritants will make their way in the home. Keep in mind that frequent filter replacement is important to ensuring that particles of dusts, pollen, dander, and other contaminants don’t create respiratory concerns in the process.
- Inhibit mold growth: Mold spores can grow quickly - and a significant share of the population reacts quite negatively to exposure to mold. Keep exhaust fans running in the bathroom during showers and baths, and use kitchen range hood fans to keep moisture from cooking out of the kitchen area.
Asthma is a serious disease that must be managed appropriately in order to prevent long-term damage to the respiratory system. While not all asthma cases are the same in terms of severity, each should be accompanied by a doctor-prescribed asthma management plan that details specific activities and medications that will help each patient to thrive and manage their individual affliction. Keeping allergies in check, occupational hazards at bay, and the home air clean and filtered will go a long way toward keeping asthma symptoms within tolerable levels.
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